Police minister faces gun battle

Next week the portfolio committee on police will consider Police Minister Bheki Cele’s request for a six-month amnesty so that unlicensed firearms can be surrendered to the police.

In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that every owner whose licence had expired — and had not been renewed ­— would have to surrender their firearms to the police immediately or face arrest.

Cele wants the portfolio committee to approve his request for the National Assembly to authorise a six-month amnesty from September 1 to February 28 next year. For now, the illegal firearms are to be handed in and destroyed en masse.

READ MORE: The Zwelihle protests and Bheki Cele’s missing gun

But critics argue that the police are the worst culprits when it comes to securing firearms — legal or illegal.

The minister announced in June that he would approach the committee to consider the amnesty, but a fortnight ago lobby group Gun Owners of South Africa (Gosa) won an urgent interim interdict in the high court on the grounds that the police had not presented a plan to collect and store the weapons.

Gosa’s Paul Oxley said that police don’t have the capacity to collect, transport and store more than 437 000 firearms and about 60-million rounds of ammunition.

“That’s why we went to court; to highlight this as a national security crisis,” said Oxley.

“This is container loads of ammunition. The discussions we have been having with SAPS [South African Police Service] is where are they going to store all this, how are they going to store this and how will it be transported from police stations to a depot?”

Adele Kirsten of Gun Free South Africa agrees that there are serious problems with the police’s ability to secure the weapons.

“The two biggest issues [are] the ability to secure the weapons once they have been handed over. If you want secure weapons management you need a very physically secure structure and … the person who is in charge of that needs to be very competent and not at risk of corruption,” she said. “The biggest challenges are the securing of these weapons and, before the weapons are destroyed, a proper verification must be guaranteed.”

The police have a poor record of ensuring their own firearms are secure. Last week, the Kareedouw police station in the Eastern Cape was attacked in the early hours of the morning by four armed men who overpowered the constable on duty and removed firearms from the safe and also took a police radio.

In February, 10 weapons were stolen from the eNgcobo police station in the Eastern Cape and were then used to kill five police officers and a former soldier.

Last year, the police ministry revealed that more than 2 000 police firearms had gone missing or been stolen.

In 2016, former police colonel Chris Prinsloo was jailed for 18 years after striking a plea bargain on charges of selling 2 400 firearms surrendered in Gauteng to gangsters in the Western Cape over an eight-year period.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo would not respond to any questions relating to the SAPS’s capacity to store and destroy the firearms.

READ MORE: Here’s how the police strategy to curb violent crime could work

He said the minister was preparing for the parliamentary committee hearing and would be contesting the interim interdict, this time providing full details about how the police would prevent the surrendered firearms ending up in the wrong hands before they could destroy them.

Police portfolio committee chairperson Francois Beukman warned two weeks ago that SAPS’s management would have to assure the committee of the strict protocols that would be put in place for the storage, testing and destruction of the firearms.

According to international researcher and watchdog, Small Arms Survey, about 5.4-million South Africans own firearms.

Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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