Police Minister Bheki Cele and national police commissioner Khehla Sitole have insisted that harsh public scrutiny and unclear mandates are inhibiting the ability of law enforcement personnel to execute their duties.
The two have reportedly not seen eye-to-eye of late, but they appeared on the same page when grilled by parliament’s portfolio committee on police on Thursday afternoon. The meeting was convened for a briefing on the stability within the South African Police Service (SAPS). Chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson had asked that questions around the civil unrest that engulfed South Africa recently be reserved for the next sitting of the committee, but inevitably, the perceived inaction of police during the violence came up.
Alternate committee member Kenneth Meshoe said some police officers reported being under instruction to not engage protesters, even those who may be armed. Many were also afraid, he added, because they shared public transport with looters in their communities and feared reprisal if they acted against them.
“The current laws and human rights prescript — including public perceptions — are heavy on the police and are actually handicapping them from acting,” Sitole said. “While we are going to invest in the training of police and prepare them to be fully equipped to handle the situation without maximum use of force, I think we also need to be attending to the laws that are handicapping the police, because they create trauma.”
In the earlier presentation, the committee heard that the police-to-population ratio stood at its highest ever this year, at 1:327. With austerity budgets tightening the resources available to law enforcement, equipment like nyalas (armoured police personnel carriers) and resources such as air support are also not as readily accessible as they once were, Sitole claimed.
Both he and Cele have faced heavy criticism in recent weeks over a lethargic response to the initial days of unrest. More than 300 lives were ultimately lost in the violence, which was ignited after former president Jacob Zuma began a 15-month jail term.
Cele, who is well known for his hardline stance, said police were stuck in a quagmire, and they were hesitant to exercise duties that could save lives. He called for more conversations around the conduct of his charges.
“You know, it is one difficult matter starting with Marikana and going with Farlam [commision of inquiry] and the other documents that have been around that,” he said, referring to the 2012 death of more than 30 mineworkers at the hands of police. “The police are really in a dilemma. I think at one time we’ll sit down and discuss how police should behave.
“I’m sure you have seen, members, when the police … are pushed around, sometimes by foreign nationals [who] have firearms. Those police will simply say ‘we stand alone when we use these firearms; we are heavily investigated. Nobody finds out what really happened to us’.”
Although he dismissed Meshoe’s second concern, stating that transport was provided to SAPS members, Cele was quick to attack what he saw as an unsympathetic attitude towards police safety.
“We have seen police taken by criminals and put at the back of the van, the latest [incident being] in North West,” he said, referring to the murder of two Mareetsane police officers in the province.
“Police are highly regulated, highly restricted, all at the expense of their own lives. The welfare of police is one thing that is not taken on board by many of us, but also the legislation itself and by the [South African] Human Rights Commission people, by the NGOs … just nobody believes that police need to protect themselves.”
On his relationship with Sitole, Cele said the two are, indeed, not friends and do not drink coffee together, but that does not affect their work and they call each other almost every day.