Senzo Meyiwa’s cruel, unintended legacy


It went quickly from shock to mourning, then outrage and the familiar calls of how to deal with violent crime.

On Monday morning South Africans learnt that Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa had been shot dead in Vosloorus on the East Rand.

By that afternoon there were widespread calls for a halt to the demilitarisation of police. By Wednesday there were calls for the death penalty to be reinstituted.

And by the end of the week experts in crime and policing were starting to worry that the storm of public fury could push policymakers into decisions that would, at best, reduce crime in the short term but worsen the situation in the long run.

Two things in particular bode ill: police commissioner Riah Phiyega’s concern with perceptions abroad and calls for her predecessor to get his job back. “This type of loss is undesirable for our country, this type of loss does not augur well for our brand and image out there,” she said at a press conference on Monday.

Phiyega already faces pressure over the uptick in violent crime reported in the most recent national annual crime statistics.

“We need action,” tweeted Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema in support of an apparently spontaneous campaign for the return of Bheki “The General” Cele to the post Phiyega now holds. Malema was the highest-profile politician to come out in support of the call – one that echoed across class and race lines.

Besides his brush with a building leasing scandal during his time in office, Cele is best known for establishing the police’s tactical response team, also known as the amaBerete for their distinctive headgear. The unit became notorious for terrorising townships with its aggressive, and often violent, tactics.

Many police officers still speak glowingly of Cele’s enthusiastic adoption of military tactics, and his focus on the safety of police and communities at any cost – a focus that saw him fighting off claims that he favoured a “shoot to kill” approach.

Phiyega, on the other hand, was a civilian before her appointment, and has overseen preparations for the complete demilitarisation of the police. Despite being in charge during the Marikana massacre, the past week has seen her described as being “soft” on crime.

The natural response to both a perception problem and a public that wants a hardline police boss is what academics grudgingly call a police crackdown: a sudden and dramatic increase in police presence and arrests.

“Crackdowns hold substantial appeal for the public, police, and government officials,” the United States-based Centre for Problem-Oriented Policing wrote in a 2004 review of just such occurrences. “They offer the promise of firm, immediate action and quick, decisive results. They appeal to demands that order be restored when crime and disorder seem out of control.”

Such was the reasoning behind the remilitarisation of police in 2010; criminals would be deterred and the public would feel safer. The approach failed on both counts, leading to the current reversal of the militarisation policy, in ways that were utterly predictable.

A crackdown, wrote British academic Lawrence Sherman in a seminal study in 1990, often shows an initial effect: “In most long-term crackdowns with apparent initial deterrence, however, the effects began to decay after a short period, sometimes despite continued dosage of police presence or even increased dosage of police sanctions.”

Experts differ on exactly why that is. Typically they cite some combination of a public that grows suspicious of aggressive police, a focus on results that sees foot soldiers swept up but criminal masterminds ignored, and a justice system overloaded with suspects against whom criminal cases cannot be sustained – putting them back on the streets with exactly the kind of sense of untouchability many believe was the root cause of Meyiwa’s death.

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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