Police Minister Bheki Cele.
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Under Bheki Cele’s oversight, South Africa is undoubtedly more lawless and violent, and the SAPS is undoubtedly less capable than ever of turning the tide, argues Geordin Hill-Lewis.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s stubborn refusal to shuffle Police Minister Bheki Cele out of his cabinet despite five years of failure, a steady march in the wrong direction of all our significant crime numbers, and a troubling exodus of SAPS officers in recent years is an indictment on his Presidency. His recent cabinet reshuffle was an opportunity to put the Cele chapter behind us. Instead, he used it to neutralise political opponents rather than those whose failures affect people’s lives.
Under Bheki Cele’s oversight, South Africa is undoubtedly more lawless and violent, and the SAPS is undoubtedly less capable than ever of turning the tide. All of the grim statistics bear this out. The President did all he could to sugarcoat this failure in last week’s parliamentary question session as he coloured in a few silver linings to this dark cloud. Almost laughably, he assured us that he is “confident the minister and national commissioner of police are competent and able to lead the government’s collaborative approach to building a South Africa where all people are and feel safe”.
No one in the real world – away from state-funded Ministerial security estates and blue-light convoys – shares this confidence. The crime stats for the third quarter of last year, as presented by Cele in February, show that a staggering 7555 people were murdered over those three months. More than 12,000 rapes were reported during this period. That’s not the story of a country, or a Minister, winning the war.
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But you really need to take a step back and view these crime stats over a longer period to see just how far we have fallen behind in the fight. In 2011/2012, 15,554 people were murdered in South Africa. Ten years later, in 2021/2022, that number grew to 25,181. That’s a full 10,000 more people murdered in one year than a decade before. And it’s not for want of budget. Over that same decade, the police budget expanded from R58 billion to R100 billion, yet their ability to solve crimes has plummeted. In 2012, police solved 31% of murders reported to them. By last year, it was only 14.5%.
Against this backdrop, it beggars belief that Minister Cele has managed to hold onto his job. Even by the most generous interpretation, it is impossible to point to a single significant win for the Minister since he stepped into the position in 2018. Increasing the budget for the VIP Protection Services of the Executive is not a win for citizens. Arresting beach-goers on camera during Covid lockdown is not a win for citizens. And whatever happened to the long-promised demilitarisation of SAPS?
Always first to arrive on the scene of high profile crimes with cameras in tow, that is unfortunately where his enthusiasm and his involvement end. If SAPS are unable to solve even high profile cases – the murder of music star AKA captured on CCTV camera, or the murder of soccer star Senzo Meyiwa in a room full of eye witnesses – what reason do ordinary South Africans have to feel protected? Why should they feel confident that they might find justice and closure for crimes committed against their sons, daughters, mothers and fathers?
In defending Cele, President Ramaphosa said that the Minister had raised the issue of under-resourced SAPS stations and the skewed ratio between police officers and citizens. He claimed that when Cele had done so, the “penny dropped”. But how can it be that this penny only dropped in 2023? This problem has been decades in the making and has been the subject of an entire Commission of Inquiry in Khayelitsha. The penny has dropped far too late for those communities who have been crying out for help.
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There are solutions, though, but they require political will. The City of Cape Town is advocating for the devolution of greater policing powers from national government to competent local governments. We’re calling for this so that local law enforcement and Metro Police can investigate crimes, build cases and actually secure convictions to get violent criminals off the streets. And this can be done by a simple declaration by the Justice Minister.
In fact, it was already done to a limited extent back in 2018 when municipal law enforcement was granted powers to perform searches, make arrests and investigate certain offences. What we need now is for those same well-trained officers to be given full investigative powers to build prosecution-ready case dockets so that criminals aren’t merely arrested but also successfully prosecuted and taken off our streets.
It is clear that SAPS alone cannot perform this function. In Cape Town, 71% of police stations are under-resourced, and this is set to worsen as SAPS officers leave the service faster than new candidates are recruited and trained. If we want to get ahead of the crime crisis, we are going to need not just more boots on the ground but we’re also going to have to equip those officers with the powers required to police our communities effectively.
I will continue to advocate for this devolution of policing powers until we get that declaration, just as I will continue to add my voice to the millions of South Africans calling on Minister Cele to be fired. It is unacceptable that they are made to pay such a heavy price for the President’s inability to act.
– Geordin Hill-Lewis is Mayor of Cape Town.
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