23 November 2001

South Africa: On the Edge of a Moral Precipice

How things have changed since the adoption of our liberal Constitution. The South African police used to use local natives as live targets for shooting practice and dog exercise. Now, it seems, the cop on the beat has to restrict himself to letting rip on foreign natives only.

One of six cops who have just been convicted for assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm explained to the court the dilemma of the new South African policeman.

Responding to a complaint by the chief instructor of the North East Rand Dog Unit that a newly recruited dog called Jerry Lee was "presenting problems about biting in practical attack situations", Sergeant Jacobus Smith took it upon himself to look out for suitable opportunities to show the reluctant newcomer how seasoned professionals get things done.

Spotting three men, who later turned out to be illegal Mozambican immigrants, at a Benoni taxi rank, Smith radioed some colleagues to bring Jerry Lee along to a piece of open ground near a disused mine shaft in the vicinity for a bit of live practice. There, Jerry Lee was encouraged to join in while more "experienced" dogs sank their fangs into the terrified and bleeding Mozambicans.

This sort of informal training session probably happens quite frequently. The difference this time was that one of the cops had brought along a video camera, presumably so that they could all relive the happy moment over beers and a braai in a family situation later on. This was the video that somehow found its way on to a series of local and international television channels - exposure which ultimately caused the whistle to be blown on a group of loyal men who until then believed that they had merely discovered an appropriate way of carrying out their duties under a confusing new dispensation.

A handful of rogue cops have now been punished for a crime they were not aware they were committing. But the police force has other problems. Simply trying to police the country, it turns out, is a nightmare in a class of its own.

South Africa has the highest per capita murder rate in the world, but, according to Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete, we're stuck with it, and that's that.

At an average of 21 000 body bag candidates per annum, South Africa's murder statistics have long since gone through the roof - in fact they are currently hovering somewhere high above the stratosphere. Compare these figures with the mere 600 people killed over the last year in open warfare between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, and you start wondering why the rest of the world thinks it has something to get hysterical about.

South Africans could teach the rest of the world a few lessons. South Africans don't get hysterical in the face of hysterical murder statistics. South Africans have got an explanation for everything, which allows that dwindling band made up of those of us who have not yet been murdered to shrug it all off and get on with the business of living. Or at least dying of something else.

Thus it is that Tshwete, the Cabinet minister responsible for ensuring our safety and security, is able to tell us that we should just forget about seeing any more gains in the state of our safety and security where the crime of murder is concerned.

The police, he informs us, have done a sterling job in the past few years, what with swapping their old camouflage attire, shotguns and hippo-tail sjamboks for a softer, funkier, shirt-sleeves-and-baseball- caps look, and generally becoming more community friendly. Crime, including murder, has been brought down significantly.

The trouble is that crime, especially murder, has reached a level where it cannot be brought down any further. This is not the fault of the police. It is the fault of South Africans themselves. At a certain level, the good minister has realised, South Africans are "unpoliceable".

We seem to have come a long way since we collectively answered Oliver Tambo's call to be merely ungovernable. Public ungovernability, you will recall, helped us to bring down apartheid.

Being unpoliceable is a different matter. By the logic of the minister's argument, if we contented ourselves with being unpoliceable in public, the cops might stand a chance. But the problem with South Africans is that we insist on being unpoliceable in the privacy of our own homes, or in the homes and business premises of friends, family and close associates.

Most South African murders are carried out "at a family level and between people who know each other", says Tshwete. Under these circumstances, the police apparently feel they do not have the right to come and interrupt the sound of serious domestic gunfire, or the screams of men, women and children being stabbed or bludgeoned to death. "We cannot police this," he announces. "There is nothing more that we can do."

To his credit, the minister adds that this disastrous state of affairs might become more manageable if South Africans were prepared to change their values and morals. But by the looks of things, this is not a scenario that is on the immediate horizon.

It would seem as if the moral dilemmas posed by the reluctant responsibilities of freedom affect both police and policed alike. While the government dithers about whether or not to take away the average South African's right to carry a gun, the average citizen feels free to use this unspeakable weapon to settle personal and domestic scores, no matter how petty.

The police themselves, no longer sure what is right and what is wrong, turn their own guns on themselves or on each other, and in the meantime try to amuse themselves with bushveld foxhunts that use live makwerekweres as bait.

South Africa impressed the world by seemingly walking away from the precipice of racial conflagration.

What the world does not see is the equally dangerous precipice of moral disintegration - a precipice over which, by the looks of things, we have already fallen.

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