‘Wait until the first child dies’

African National Congress veteran Kader Asmal this week publicly attacked Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula over the latter’s call for the militarisation of the police. Sello Alcock asked him to elaborate.

Mail & Guardian: You said talk of the militarisation of the police is ‘craziness”. Why is that?

Kader Asmal: It is so erratic, that ‘crazy” is a word you don’t normally use in politics. But imagination can’t take into account when we are told that we ring up a police station and the person who answers the phone would call themselves the general, that they would be more effective.

Or the president says on October 15 in the ANC Today: ‘When we met with police station commanders recently, we also discussed the need to reinforce the message that the SAPS are actually an armed police force not just a soft police service. Criminals would be more fearful of a police force than a police service. They would normally find a police General more menacing than a police Commissioner, the same applies to the difference between a Director and Brigadier-General, a Colonel and superintendent, a station commissioner and a station commander … ” What do you make of that? That criminals should quake in their boots?

M&G: Do we want a police force that is more menacing? That’s what the president said.

KA: This is a classic case because of their [the government’s] inability to answer the legitimate public demand to deal with robbery and acts of violence, they embark on these escapades. We spent days and days in 1991 and 1992 on this issue and in the Constitution we tried to make a disjuncture from the past. Names and titles and appearance must come into that because the police were an army of occupation, a paramilitary body. Now we want a paramilitary again.

Through community police forums in 1994 we tried to put the community into the police and the police into the community. Everywhere in the world where the police are respected by the community the community accepts the police and then passes on information. So a civilianised police force was not something the liberals in the ANC — liberal is a big swear word now, we are all socialists hey! — invented.

The argument now is to have a professional police force, not an armed army of police. Our police are armed but they are not trained, for example, to use shields in crowd control.

Rubber bullets are the last form of control but for us it is the first and it inflames people. So the first woman [Olga Kekana] has died because she did not stop. Wait until the first child dies or is blinded.

To use language like Susan Shabangu’s is an eternal discredit to president [Thabo] Mbeki. That ”shoot the bastards” — what a terrible thing.

Language is very important in a democracy as Julius Malema recognises the more inflated language is, the more popular support he gets, Blade Nzimande recognises it …

M&G: Aren’t South Africans at fault because we respond to that sort of language?

KA: My fear about Mr Malema is that he is going around universities, like in Zululand, where thousands of students are there and he is creating a new constituency … essentially anti-democratic. That is a very dangerous thing, but we are not talking about Malema here.

But let’s go back to the police. There are people like Johan Burger, a former policeman [and now crime researcher at the ISS [Institute for Security Studies], who says there is nothing wrong with the police taking what he terms ‘a strategic offensive” position and in fact uses a example from the UK where the police have had to move away from a ‘strategic defensive” position involving the community?

I think that I am very disappointed. The problem is that he has never come from that academic background which deeply entrenches democracy, he doesn’t come from that background. So he makes these extraordinary eccentric remarks about zero tolerance and all that.

There are other places that have not had zero tolerance and have been able to deal with crime. I have news for Mr Burger. The vast council estates in Britain are no-go areas for the police, so much for his forcible intervention.

In South Africa we defeated Pagad. Why? Because we infiltrated them and created hard and fast cases against them but we did not torture them because if we had tortured them like under apartheid, the community would have turned against us.

We broke Pagad on that basis because the community didn’t defend them. That’s what we need to do with policing. We need to see women getting protection when they report things, which at present they don’t. Our witness protection is not conducive to confidence among our people.

I think that Mr Burger is totally wrong, he is ignorant and I think he doesn’t understand the democratic roots of policing. In South Africa it’s hard graft.

M&G: Your view on one police force?

KA:I am not going to argue about that. It’s largely what is more efficient. That’s my argument and since that’s been my argument about setting up a mining company when we can’t run the department of home affairs. How can we run an integrated police force? What we need rather than integration is the need for the professional respect for policing in a democracy. So we are failing in the education of our police force. If in fact they will be run efficiently [and] centrally then well and good. I doubt that very much.

M&G: In principle you have no qualms about an integrated police force?

KA: A lot of principle gives way to the question of efficacy. I doubt it very much. I mean why is it that the police do not have shields for crowd control?

M&G: You also indicated in your talk at the press club that there is something to be said about the language of the Constitution. You pointed out that the Constitution might need to be amended just to change the language. Were you being facetious?

KA:No, no. It says the president shall appoint a national police commissioner in the Constitution. I mean, are they on this because of this preposterous approach that if they change names that people will be more frightened and intimidated? Are they going to amend the Constitution to say that the national commissioner will now be described as Field Marshal? So it’s preposterous.

M&G: Why do you think that happens? Because it is one party essentially, the ANC, that has ruled. Why is it do you think we have this disjuncture?

KA: Because there are very few ministers from the early days still left now, there is the minister of justice for example, the president and Trevor Manuel among the senior people and there may be others too. Secondly, I don’t think it’s clear that deputy ministers don’t make huge policy announcements.

M&G: But Mbalula could argue that he is senior, certainly in the ANC?

KA: No, that’s nonsense. That is why Joel Netshitenzhe was right that the ANC should not micro-manage government. Do you know the effect of what you are saying is that a person appointed as a director in the Eastern Cape gave instructions to the MEC [provincial minister] for education when I was minister of education because he was senior in the ANC. That’s preposterous. Why the mess is in the Eastern Cape at the moment is that if people don’t get their way as members of the ANC they join the communist party and then the communist party raises more radical issues but this is crazy, the idea that a director can give an elected representative instruction on what should be done.

The Minister of Police is a senior authority and it’s the constitutionality of it, he is the one accountable to Parliament. And we don’t allow deputy ministers to answer questions, you allow another minister to answer questions.

When the minister is away out of the country we don’t allow the deputy minister to act, we ask another minister to act. The Constitution is supreme. That’s my objection to someone like Dr Nzimande making statements about health issues or the minister for cooperative government and traditional affairs making statements about how fruit and vegetables are just a important as antiretrovirals.

M&G: But Mbeki made statements on everything —

KA: He was the president of South Africa. He could induce ministers. When Mr Zuma was asked a question about the teacher training colleges [and] why they had closed down and he said ‘Well that is about Kader Asmal, he thought he was too clever.’ You should never say that about an ANC person — I am not affected by this, I don’t have a thin skin. What I am saying is that ministers will speak to the last and the president said through Collins Chabane that he will work out the duties of deputy ministers now that there are large numbers of deputy ministers. Was the deputy minister speaking with authority?

M&G: He would no doubt say he was.

KA: Whose authority? Where is it written down? The merger of the metro police and SAPS, a militarised police force. Where is it? If they had authority written down then I would accept it — not respect it — but accept it. I don’t accept it now. I think major policy matters must come either from the Cabinet or following a discussion within the movement by the minister. The main thing is institutional memory. It’s vital for the interest of the political movement and for democracy so that you don’t adopt erratic policy positions.

M&G: Why do think that we have such lapses in what you term ‘institutional memory”?

KA: I think that problems we face in South Africa are enormous. Why is it the most violent part of SA is not Soweto, it’s the Northern Cape. Why is the Western Cape home to the largest number of certain crimes committed in SA? Because we have to look at the context, everything — but it is more difficult to do so and secondly we have not been served very well with deployment with the kind of deployees we have what the Zulus call ‘Nqondo” or [intellectual ability]. They don’t tell the minister what the minister likes to hear. So I valued the civil servants who told me: ”I don’t think that is on, minister”. Now if you appoint people who don’t have the capacity nor the courage to put before you certain facts then you have this situation.

The second reason is they are looking for quick solutions … so words, language become …

M&G: In a way playing into the populist notion you mentioned.

KA: Maybe not populist but you generally believe that if you are called a general the public will be more intimidated. It is playing to galleries too. I believe myself a leaner police force run by real professionals and not deployees — but here deployees mean nothing, in local government deployees have resulted in this scandal of children dying because they are drinking poisoned water. This is why I think this delivery notion is a nonsense one. Delivery is not about more water and housing. It’s recognising people’s capacity to be involved in their environment.

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