The ninth congress of the police and prisons civil rights union (Popcru), held in Durban at Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre, focused on restoring the rights of police and correctional service workers.
Popcru’s president Zizamele Cebekhulu asked the attendees – government officials, speakers from affiliates of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and delegates from other African countries, the Carribbean and Latin America – “We want to ask [the ministers], why are they sitting on their portfolios if they fail?”
Using a critical, militant tone, Cebekhulu addressed South African Minister of Police Bheki Cele: “We say, Ndosi, you were better when you were national commissioner, not now wearing suits. We’ve got over 42 000 members of the police who are sitting.” He added that a considerable number of them work as police monitors and inspectors. “What are they doing when they’re supposed to fight crime? It creates a lot of bosses! Let me tell you, they’re sitting there, and they do nothing.”
“Useless ones!” shouted a police officer in the crowd as Cebekhulu continued. “Minister, it must be only yourself and the national commissioner who have drivers, not all of these generals … They charge police officers left and right!”
Some officers in the crowd screamed in excitement: “Uyashaya ke manje! [You’re dealing with him decisively].”
Cebekhulu emphasised that education in the police and correctional services departments is not valued. “Those departments are not dumping sites. It’s time to conduct a skills analysis in SAPS [South African Police Service] and correctional services. We’ve got officers with doctorate degrees languishing in police stations. We are tired to be led by those who fail to understand scientific matters that are contributors to crime.
“This country is where it is because of cadreship … You must show what you can offer in black and white. All of these … inabilities are hidden under comradeship.”
Cebekhulu said if educated officers were still not valued in favour of cadre deployment, “we are going to take you to court … On this one we are not compromising, we are doing it for the young ones because we are leaving the force soon. Crime has become too scientific for standard 10 officers.”
The Ndosi moment
Cele was pressed to respond to the alarming death rate of police officers. “After we die, our families get stranded and nobody takes care of them,” Cebekhulu said. “We’ve got these children who’ve got nobody to send them to school after their parents have died. As long as you don’t address these issues, if you don’t do the right thing, we will chase you away [from] our funerals.”
While being addressed, Cele scratched the back of his head with his index finger. Then the police minister took to the podium to address the union and its members. But he started off in an unusual way by singing a gospel song. “Yinde lendlela inameva iyahlaba. Guqa uthandaze … Oooh … Yinde lendlela inameva, iyahlaba guqa uthandaze. [The journey is long, tumultuous and thorny. Kneel down and pray.]”
He began: “Yes, there are things that need to be fixed. You know police [officers] die.” He added that it’s mostly young officers who get killed, leaving families in misery. “[After a junior officer is killed] when his family was beginning to [be financially stable], you get in the house and the only thing you find is water. No food, no nothing. That thing must change. How do we make a life of a constable not a wasted life?”
Cele said there are a number of contributing factors to police death, including dangerous urban environments and lack of resources. “In Khayelitsha, there are 13 cameras and not even a single one is working. An officer was shot in front of [one of the cameras there]. When we wanted information on it, we were told the camera hasn’t been working for eight years,” he said.
Spatial planning also makes it difficult for police to respond to crime quickly. “The police will never find the address that you want in Khayelitsha. Environmental design is messing up. Councillors mess up. They don’t fix roads and chow the money,” he said.
According to Cele, some police officers die because of strict gun-use regulations. “Cops must be procedural and one of the procedures is … don’t die with a gun in your hand. I’ve spoken to [the Independent Police Investigative Directorate] to be corrective and not punitive on the police … If cops exchange fire with criminals, why must they go to disciplinary? … The law must not favour criminals, it must favour law enforcers.”
New correctional services agenda
Dishing out concerns to the Department of Justice, Cebekhulu told Deputy Minister Phathekile Holomisa to work and plan together with the police to fight crime and make successful convictions.
“These departments are the ones that let us down as a country … We have to have a small correctional service that’s able to fight and deliver its duty in a way that it’s supposed to – a correctional services that is resourced. Not this one we have, a hotel … where prisoners get free food, education, TV and all,” Cebekhulu said. “In South Africa, people want to go to prison. People must be afraid to go to prison.”
Cebekhulu added that Holomisa’s department must come up with a new agenda. “Prisoners should not just be seated there and fed, that has turned our members into waitresses and nurses. First on the agenda, prisons must be built in rural areas and [on] farms.”
In response, Holomisa argued that the department’s turnaround strategy is to promote restorative justice to break cycles of crime through safe and humane custody by seeking to rehabilitate and integrate offenders into society. “It’s incumbent [on us] to make sure [this] work isn’t compromised,” Holomisa said. “The founding fathers and mothers of our nation embraced the simple truth that every saint has a past, every sinner has a future, every offender has a family and a community [to] which they belong.”
But Holomisa agreed that prisoners should not be fed for free. “One minister even said our correctional sectors are universities where criminals teach each other about how to commit more crimes. Of course, what can they do if there’s nothing for them to do? This overemphasis of human rights has tended to create a situation where these people are wasted labour.
“We’ve taken a decision, no more shall it be that maintenance work in correctional services be done by the Department of Public Works. [It will be done by prisoners, who have] more opportunities than those who are outside.”
The calm, soft-spoken National Commissioner of Police Khehla Sitole wasn’t vehemently grilled as was Cele. Pressed for time, his address on the turnaround strategy, which seeks to improve working conditions for police, was concise. The strategy is centred on the safety of police officers, upgrading the training curriculum and the prevention of cybercrimes.
“Our first challenge is the relocation of societies. Criminals are working online now. They’ve lifted crime scenes to be online. We’re introducing an online policing strategy. We need to advance and take a step ahead of criminals,” Sitole said.
He added that he was worried about the declining number of women police officers in top posts. “The female representation in the station commanders is less than 10%. That’s a challenge for both of us to work on it. In the crime detection sector, it’s worse. It’s less than 5%.” Of the nine provincial police commissioners, only four were women and now it is down to two.
Sitole said one of his priorities was to equip police officers. Police officers will be given “the correct tools of trade so that they can be able to protect themselves. [The tools] include training and we must review our curriculum because criminals study and analyse our training curriculum … I’ve instructed the curriculum to be upgraded to the level of [tactical response team]. We want our members to remain standing.”
The question of soldiers in Cape Town townships
Both Cele and Sithole said what the union, workers, delegates and guests needed to hear and what they intend to do to correct and improve the policing sector and correctional services. Most importantly, both men were eloquently assertive in their commitment to curb crime.
But both leaders failed to give adequate answers as to why soldiers were deployed in Cape Town townships. Sending soldiers to deal with a social issue “is a sign that the police department has failed to deal with crime,” Cebekhulu said. “It can’t be soldiers [who] deal with that. They’re not orientated in such scenes, and it’s a waste of resources.”