/ 23 January 2014

Khayelitsha commission: Bishop pleads for visible policing

Gang vigilantism has plagued the Social Justice Coalition
Gang vigilantism has plagued the Social Justice Coalition

More police visibility in Khayelitsha will reduce high crime levels, a clergyman told a commission of inquiry investigating alleged police inaction in the Cape Town area on Thursday.

Bishop Derick Mtsolo, chairperson of the Western Cape Minister's Forum, was one of the first witnesses to be called on day one of the commission's hearings in Khayelitsha.

"We need to see the police regularly …, otherwise the criminals, they take that gap," Mtsolo said. An increased police presence would also make residents feel safer. Mtsolo had lived in Khayelitsha since 1990, and said he had seen first hand the damaging effect crime had on the community.

"We see men are beating their wives, fathers raping their daughters. We hear about them and we witness them." Mtsolo referred to Khayelitsha as an "abnormal community".

"The reason I say our community is abnormal is because the days we living in now and the days before are not the same … in other words we live in fear."

Mtsolo did not believe that the police should be demonised, and said: "We need to work together with the police. Let's not fight with them, because they are our brothers and sisters." Mtsolo said the war on crime could not be won without community help. "If we, as a community, can make sure we know Khayelitsha belongs to us, it's our society, you will see the crime levels drop down," he said.

Advocate Norman Arendse, for the police, told the commission it was virtually impossible to adopt conventional policing strategies against crime in Khayelitsha. He outlined how police faced an uphill battle because of historical distrust by residents, and infrastructural constraints in the area. 

"None of the strategies proposed by NGOs … will make a difference," Arendse said. "The only solution is to eradicate these informal settlements … The lack of footpaths, the lack of roads … the absence of lighting make policing virtually impossible."

The police wanted to improve efficiency and build a constructive relationship with the community, he said.

"Where there are instances of ill-discipline and misconduct, the police would welcome the identification of such conduct in order that disciplinary action can be taken against these police officers."

Turning to the acts of mob justice which NGOs claimed were a result of police inaction, he said these were pure acts of criminality and part of a "culture of distrust rooted in a history of disdain for those in authority, including police".

Arendse made reference to how officers were put at risk daily because of this distrust, and because they were patrolling areas with no roads, footpaths, or lighting.

The main complainant at the commission is the Social Justice Coalition. Its advocate Ncumisa Mayosi told commissioners that concerns about the failure of Khayelitsha police to do their work were justified. "During the course of these hearings we will set out to place evidence before the commission which shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that the community's complaints are justified," Mayosi said, speaking in Xhosa.

A list of why there was a breakdown in trust between residents and police was presented. "Members of the Khayelitsha community routinely experience violations of their constitutional rights in their dealings with police," Mayosi said. 

Focus would be placed on how women and girls bore the brunt of violent crime in the area. "Girls and women are often beaten and raped while walking to and from communal toilets or fetching water from communal taps close to their homes; while domestic abuse poses a threat to women in their own homes," she said.

The police's inability to protect residents from harm had led to an erosion of trust and faith in the police. "The brutal acts of vigilantism that have claimed dozens of lives in recent years are a shocking end result of this erosion."

Residents will also testify about how the lack of police visibility had made it possible for criminals to continue terrorising them.

Mayosi emphasised that the aim of the commission was not to conduct a witch hunt. "We are here to find solutions … This is not an attack on police. It is not about pointing fingers at specific officers and calling for them to lose their jobs."

Earlier, evidence leader Thembalihle Sidaki told the commission proof would be provided that court cases against criminals were routinely withdrawn because of poor police investigations. 

Sidaki was the first to make opening remarks before the commission, which is led by retired judge Kate O'Regan and advocate Vusi Pikoli.

The commission began its hearings after two days of inspections in loco. It visited crime hotspots and police stations on Tuesday and Wednesday in an attempt to see first hand the circumstances under which the victims of crime live, and the conditions to which residents and the police were subject.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille established the inquiry in August 2012 after receiving numerous complaints about police inefficiency in Khayelitsha. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa opposed the decision to set up the inquiry, but this was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in October 2013. – Sapa