Nathi Mthethwa stands, politically, at the head of a police service that has started to make a dent in the most serious types of crime. He is an important member of President Jacob Zuma’s kitchen Cabinet, and was instrumental in Zuma’s ascension at the ANC’s Polokwane conference as well as his triumph at Mangaung. His president, and his organisation, believe in collective leadership and, therefore, collective responsibility.
These are the reasons why Mthethwa will almost certainly remain in his job, even if the long-rumoured Cabinet reshuffle finally comes to pass.
The reasons why Mthethwa should be made to fall on his sword, if he fails to do so voluntarily, are less political and more compelling. He is the minister who presided over the massacre at Marikana, a bloody episode that seems set to claim, at most, mid-level police heads. Under his watch officers publicly killed Andries Tatane, and now Mido Macia. During his term, police brutality has become an entrenched reality in a democratic South Africa and attempts at combatting that culture have come to little.
Firing Mthethwa will not solve the problem of police casually torturing and brutalising people in broad daylight, in front of multiple witnesses, while being filmed. It would, however, send a powerful message during the window of opportunity opened, again, by a tragedy that has shocked the country into introspection.
It is difficult to take seriously the various expressions of outrage, remorse and regret that followed Tatane, Marikana, and now Macia, when there are no consequences for individuals and no significant changes to institutions.
It must be more difficult still for police officers who routinely assault and abuse to take seriously threats of prosecution, or for those who stick to the law when doing their jobs to take seriously promises that the reputation of their organisation will be salvaged.
We have no doubt that, as the police service is keen to remind us, the majority of officers do good work under extremely trying circumstances. Beyond that, there are pockets of true excellence within the service; men and women who risk their lives for paltry reward in service of their communities and their country. But there are also entire townships living in fear of the amaBerete (the police’s tactical response unit), foreigners who feel that they can-
not turn to the cops, victims of rape and assault too afraid to report their police assailants, and families — who are sure that their loved ones died at the hands of officers — who will never get justice.
These problems are not reflected in statistics and not captured on video. They cannot be addressed by way of platitudes nor solved through symbolic action. But a high-level head that rolls would, at least, be a start.