Why Kenya should be furious with SA

Jacob Zuma's good-news philosophy isn't just something to poke fun at on Twitter. It's costing us lives.

Think I'm being too dramatic?

Two weeks ago South Africa's annual crime statistics were released for the previous financial year: April 2012 – March 2013. This means it is six to 18 months out of date and we can't tell when any of the crimes occurred within that period.

Security experts have pointed out that this is a huge blow to a number of critical crime prevention strategies. Civil organisations, community forums and anyone interested in combatting crime in their area don't have any real-time information to work from.

Why? Because that's too much information to control for our increasingly secretive government.

Instead it wants to package that information in ways that are positive – or the "opposite of negative" as Zuma so memorably put it while addressing journalism students.

The debate around positive or sunshine news is more insidious than we realise. It's one thing having the threat of muted investigative reports, it's quite another stifling the regular release of data that could bring down crimes and save lives. The crime statistics are a new facet to this dangerous philosophy.

But wait, as your telesales presenter puts it, there's more. The politics of good news also means that people sympathetic to the powers-that-be are put in strategic places.

Think Richard Mdluli at the head of crime intelligence – that is when his friends in high places can keep him there between court challenges over his many alleged crimes.

For the likes of Zuma to keep their hold on power, and reduce the leaks of pesky bad news, it is critical to have those sympathetic to their interests in key positions like intelligence.

The problem is that crime intelligence is pretty damn important to us as the public too. It's what we need to bring down organised crime such as hijacking syndicates and, on a more sinister note, to prevent terrorism attacks.

Our politically beleaguered crime intelligence has failed on both these counts.

Reports around "White Widow" Samanthat Lewthwaite indicate that she used a false South African passport to get around, popped in and out of the country a number of times, and even stayed at length while planning her path of destruction.

Lewthwaite is thought to be responsible for the recent al-Shabab terrorist attacks at Kenya's Westgate mall that left more than 65 dead and scores more injured and missing.

It turns out various South African intelligence services knew about her, and were informed of the danger she posed by foreign intelligence services a few years back – as well as the fact that she was spotted in the country watching key embassies as recently as February this year.

In the biggest indictment of our intelligence in the aftermath of the nightmarish attack, various agencies seem to have failed to act on this and other indications that Lewthwaite was a danger and should be stopped. (Reports from Kenya reveal its intelligence services also failed, but that's a topic for another time).

The cynic in me feels that our intelligence service are instead wrapped up in politically significant "spy tapes" , intercepting sensitive conversations to help a particular ANC faction win, and uncovering ground reports of political conspiracies to win favour with our current president.

That seems to be all I've been hearing about our crime intelligence in the past few years.

Forget the critical work of actually protecting those you serve. And there's more besides the threat of terrorism.

The unit is so weakened by the political appointments, factionalism, interference and the lack of a morally strong leader that they have not been able to attend to the growth in organised crime over the past 18 months, which South Africans only found out about earlier this month thanks to the delayed statistics release.

But the authorities must have known about this unusual uptick in organised criminal activities – a direct result of a failing crime intelligence unit – yet did nothing about it and continued with the petty politicking protecting the likes of Mdluli and, by extension, Zuma.

Political games, it sometimes seems, wins over saving people's lives as far as our current crime intelligence unit is concerned. 

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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