It is unavoidable that innocent civilians will get shot in the crossfire between police and criminals, Deputy Police Minister Fikile Mbalula said on Thursday as he defended plans to give officers greater licence to use lethal force.
”In the course of any duty the innocent will be victimised,” Mbalula told reporters in Parliament
”In this particular situation where you are caught in combat with criminals, innocent people are going to die, not deliberately, but in the exchange of fire. They are going to be caught on the wrong side, not deliberately, but unavoidably.”
He said there had always been collateral damage in the fight against crime, and a recent spate of civilian deaths at police hands could not be blamed on the ministry’s call to strengthen the hand of policemen in dealing with violent criminals.
”We cannot say to the police, retreat. We cannot say to South Africans, despair. Our job is to give people hope.
”Yes. Shoot the bastards. Hard-nut to crack, incorrigible bastards.”
Mbalula said the promised amendments to section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act would be tabled in Parliament next year, but would not amount to an overhaul of the Act.
In essence, lawmakers would change the act ”in terms of emphasis on the word ‘necessary”’ to remove ambiguity in the law, the deputy minister said. He gave no further details.
Section 49 states that if someone suspected to have committed a serious or violent crime resists arrest, the police may ”use such force as may in the circumstances be reasonably necessary to overcome the resistance or prevent the person concerned from fleeing”.
It also gives police the right to use lethal force if their lives or those of innocent bystanders are in danger.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Mbalula and police National Commissioner Bheki Cele have all suggested that the Act puts too heavy a discretionary burden on the police.
Said Mbalula: The act as it stands says they’ve got to make a deliberation as to what is dangerous. That is why police are killed and are dying like flies.”
‘We need real police training’
Controversy about the planned amendments to a law that owes its post-apartheid form to a Constitutional Court judgement mounted after the police shot dead a toddler in Midrand on Saturday.
They mistook the metal pipe three-year-old Atlegang Aphane was holding for a firearm.
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has said it feared this and similar recent incidents were the result of ”an overall breakdown of control over the use of lethal force within the [South African Police Service]”.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos said there was little leeway to change the Act without falling foul of the Constitution.
He said that regardless of any change of wording, the police would always have to make split-second decisions on whether it was justified to use lethal force.
”Those decisions can only be good decisions if the police are properly trained. So I think they are trying to change the law instead of fixing a bigger problem, which is that we need real police training.”
Mbalula on Thursday gave no inch in the bitter spat that broke out between him and Kader Asmal when the former minister said calls to militarise the police were ”craziness”.
Mbalula said there was ”nothing crazy” about building a better police force and accused Asmal of being sensationally alarmist and projecting himself as ”a reservoir of absolute wisdom”.
He said Asmal could not cope with former president Thabo Mbeki’s defeat in the battle for control of the African National Congress, and shrugged off reports that the Human Rights Commission of South Africa planned to investigate a hate-speech complaint against him for calling the party veteran ”a lunatic”.
”Far better things need to be investigated relating to human rights than a cross debate.”
The deputy minister, who is reported to be locked in a power struggle with Mthethwa, conceded that their relationship was at times marked by disagreements and said he was nobody’s ”ball boy”.
”I’m a deputy minister, but a deputy with substance.” — Sapa