Absent Nathi Mthethwa's job is safe

Mido Macia died after being handcuffed and dragged behind a police vehicle. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Mido Macia died after being handcuffed and dragged behind a police vehicle. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

When Mido Macia died, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa was on honeymoon. As the murdered Mozambican was mourned and former comrades called for Mthethwa's head, the minister remained on holiday. But though the beating the reputation of the police has taken will leave a mark on his career, it won't make for a mortal wound.

The Marikana massacre did not cost Mthethwa his job as police minister.
Nor did the death of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg. So it came as little surprise when President Jacob Zuma this week rejected calls for his head to roll amid public outrage, and international incredulity, at the way police treated the taxi driver.

Mthethwa's job appears safe – even if the minister dangerously ignored public sentiment by not cutting his holiday short and even though, in addition to the human tragedy, the death of Macia represents election season ammunition that opposition parties are sure to use against Zuma and the ANC more broadly.

Mthethwa married high-powered businessperson Philisiwe Buthelezi shortly after Valentine's Day, and left for a honeymoon that staff would only confirm had taken him out of the country. Macia died about a week after the wedding. Mthethwa will remain on "special leave" until March 12 as planned, his office confirmed this week.

"Through legislation and resources the minister has capacitated those who police the police," said Mthethwa's spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, when asked why the minister had not returned to the country to provide political leadership and reassurance to a nation in collective shock. "If he had been there on the day, how would he have stopped it? What could he have done?"

Since the video showing Macia being dragged behind a police van was first aired, Mnisi has largely acted as the public face of the police response, with occasional appearances by acting police minister Siyabonga Cwele (who continues to run state security at the same time) and a statement from Zuma's office.

This week, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils became the most prominent of those who have suggested Mthethwa should resign or be fired. Kasrils lost some currency with his former comrades after taking a strong stance against the secrecy Bill but, if anything, is a more trusted public figure for it.

"What Zuma needs to do to arrest this descent into police-state depravity is dismiss his minister and commissioner of police," Kasrils said in letter published in Business Day, adding that he had warned of increased police brutality in 2008.

Recent upsurge in police brutality
Those who deal with police excesses on a daily basis are convinced there has been an increase in the frequency of beatings and torture of late, though those are meted out in a workaday fashion rather than with greater brutality.

"We've seen some recent cases of very severe torture, where the cops virtually kill you and chop you up, but the kind we tend to see is a more moderate form," said Peter Jordi, who focuses on such cases at the Wits Law Clinic. "It's still torture and I can tell you I'm pleased it's not happening to me, but we more typically see smothering and those kinds of more sophisticated techniques."

The problem, according to Jordi and others who deal with victims on a regular basis, is that abuse at the hands of police is common, far more common than reflected in statistics, because complaints are often not laid.

There are plenty of theories on why police beat up citizens (and foreigners) with impunity: a brutalised society that never fully healed after apartheid; the high level of threat faced by police officers and their sense of being under siege; little proactive investigation of police excesses; remilitarisation of the police force that failed to instil discipline but did come with "shoot to kill" overtones; and orders to be tough on crime and criminals - orders that come right from the top.

However, regardless of cause or combination of causes, blame must ultimately be laid at the door of either Mthethwa or the president, who has failed to replace him after both have been in their jobs for more than four years. That he will remain in his job speaks both to the fact that the government does not share the public's outrage and to Zuma's collectivist approach to government.

"We view this as a collective effort," said Mnisi this week. "[Policing] is not about personalities. We need a system, not a face."

Since before his election to the ANC's top job, Zuma has stuck to a similar policy of collective decision-making. The implication is one of shared rather than personal responsibility.

That, and improved numbers, will in all probability keep Mthethwa in his job.

Statistics on police brutality verge on the meaningless, analysts say, because of everything from poor reporting to legitimate use of violence in subduing suspects. The most reliable statistics available – deaths at the hands of police – have shown an improvement in the past two years of reporting. During the same time, under Mthethwa’s watch, serious and contact crime has declined.

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet