While local residents queued in the sweltering heat of the charge office of the Khayelitsha police station in Site B on Tuesday, the Khayelitsha commission of inquiry finally kicked off its proceedings with an in loco inspection of the building.
The commission was appointed by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille in August 2012 to investigate the alleged inefficiency of the police in the area, and the breakdown of relations between the community in Khayelitsha and the police.
Yet the commission was delayed by a year when Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa unsuccessfully challenged its validity in court and drew the ire of activists in the sprawling township.
The first of a number of inspections planned by the commission at the three police stations in the area, as well as various residential sites in the township, was led by station commander Zithelele Dladla.
Commissioners Justice Kate O'Regan and advocate Vusi Pikoli and a number of legal teams representing the police and complainant organisations inspected areas including the rundown station's crime office, archive rooms, holding cells and toilets. Most of the inspections were done out of earshot of the large media gathering, which could not fit into the cramped rooms.
The inspection proceeded with little excitement until the media contingent was shown four locked containers, which allegedly contained case files. As Khayelitsha's three police stations have the highest number of reported murders of any neighbourhood in South Africa, interest in the contents of the containers was high.
Mike Hamnca, a community mobiliser for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), one of the complainant organisations, said the containers had been opened for inspection on a visit he had made to the station last year.
"Some of the files fell out when the containers were opened," he told the Mail & Guardian. "We will ask our legal representative to request the containers be opened."
The containers were thereafter opened up for inspection. Bundles of old case files, which have to be kept for a number of years, filled one of the containers, while the other revealed an orderly display of furniture and goods belonging to the station.
The police have appointed top advocate Norman Arendse to represent them at the commission, and he accompanied the commission on its inspection of the station.
While there was initially some concern the police might not co-operate with the commission after it subpoenaed them for documents last year, commission secretary Amanda Dissel said it had now received most of the documents it had requested from the police.
Incidents of mob violence, which are high in Khayelitsha, will also be explored by the commission.
Zille announced the establishment of the commission in response to complaints from various nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and civil rights bodies about policing in Khayelitsha.
Many NGOs such as the Social Justice Coalition, Equal Education, Free Gender, Ndifuna Ukwazi, the TAC, the Triangle Project and the Women’s Legal Centre are involved in the commission.
The organisations believe that ineffective policing in the township gave rise to vigilante groups taking matters into their own hands and killing suspected criminals. Police crime figures indicate there were 78 vigilante killings between April 2011 and April 2012.
Zille did not compromise when she appointed two of the finest legal minds as commissioners. O'Regan was a judge at the Constitutional Court for 15 years, while Pikoli is the former head of the now defunct Scorpions, and is recognised for his independence and integrity.
O'Regan told the media last year that her intention was not to assign personal or collective liability to any member or part of the South African Police Service.
"Both advocate Vusi Pikoli and I have agreed to participate in the commission because we believe that all South Africans have a right to a secure and safe environment and that being free from crime is an important constitutional right."
Mthethwa lost his case when the Constitutional Court found that section 206 (5) of the Constitution gives a province the power to establish a commission of inquiry into policing.
In the judgment handed down by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, the court held that without coercive powers the commission would be unable to fulfil its mandate. It dismissed the argument that the terms of reference were too vague or broad.
"The Constitutional Court refused to make an order declaring the premier's decision to establish the commission inconsistent with the Constitution and invalid," it said.
The judgment found the premier was obliged to take reasonable steps to shield the residents of Khayelitsha from an unrelenting invasion of their fundamental rights, as a result of the alleged police inefficiency.
One local resident in the queue at the police station, whose future could be affected by the outcome of the commission, was Babalwa Khupiso. A 21-year-old with a bright smile who has just completed her matric, she has been mugged in Khayelitsha, and now lives in fear of her life.
On this occasion, Khupiso had popped into the police station to ask cops for the name of her street in Site B, as she needed to put it on forms to apply for jobs. "Many of the streets in the area have no sign posts and are poorly lit," she explained. "I live in a shack with my mother and father and siblings. There is no street sign there, so I came here for help. If I had a choice I would rather live anywhere else, other than Khayelitsha. There are so many gangsters here."
The findings of the commission, as well as recommendations for improvements on policing in Khayelitsha, will be submitted to Cabinet. The commission hopes to complete its work in the first half of this year.