Shoot to kill!

The rainbow nation is looking to curb crime as the international community looks for safety during the World Cup next summer. South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, vows to address the fears but his response towards crime has the nation embroiled in a hot debate. How do the police protect themselves and the public against heavily armed criminals while ensuring the safety of civilians caught in the crossfire?

Last year, 556 people were shot dead, by the South African police. The latest findings illustrate the fourth year in a row that there has been a rise in police-caused deaths, according to the Independent Complaints Directorate. South Africa’s highest recorded civilian shootings were 763 in 1985, the year that brought about a five-year state of emergency in South Africa.

The current results show an increase of almost double the 2005-06 rates, with at least 32 bystanders among the dead, a fact not lost on the father of Olga Kekana who is now burying his daughter because of an over-zealous approach to a policy designed to protect. Mistaken for someone else by the police, Olga was shot in the head while heading to a party with three friends near Pretoria.

Frans Makgotla, whose daughter Olga Kekana was an innocent victim of a recent police error, vows to punish the police, although he feels blame should be placed on President Zuma and his “shoot-to-kill” policy. In a society apprehended by trepidation and violence it is no wonder that police have become inclined to shoot first, given the repetitive directives by Zuma and others in power. Zuma acknowledged that South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world with 18,000 killings last year. He said his government would use “extraordinary means” to solve “an abnormal criminal problem.”

Many wonder if Zuma is truly determined to solve the crisis or if this is more a move to appease investors. Simply increasing numbers and the amount of force used by police officers will not bring a resolution to the problem of crime in South Africa. It may comfort some pleading for action, but realistically it will do little other than bring more pain and division to an already beleaguered population.

Last April the former deputy safety and security minister, Susan Shabangu, reportedly told senior police leaders, “You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or your community. You must not worry about the regulations — that is my responsibility [ . . . ] You have one shot and it must be a kill shot,” a statement that illustrates the ANC’s dangerous discourse aimed at solving crime. Zuma followed his support for Shabangu by lambasting the South African Constitution and human rights as being soft.

However, much of the concern within the government derives from the existence of a ruthless criminal population that has access to a nation littered with guns from the apartheid era. These brutal elements of society have held the population hostage with their callous crimes and citizens are pleading for action. Comments made by Zuma and others in power were provoked by the murder of police officer, Captain Charl Sheepers, a husband and father of three who was killed trying to apprehend a robber in Pretoria.

Police commissioner Bheki Cele, along with deputy police minister Fikile Mbalual, recently announced plans to shift the police from a service into a paramilitary like force with similar ranks and discipline. A truly alarming idea, as the descent into a militarized police force would only drag the nation back and further fuel the fear paralyzing the country. Former minister Kader Asmal views this as “craziness all of us need to take into account. It is part of that low-level decision-making without reference to the Cabinet.”

The controversy only got worse as Angie Molebatsi, an ANC MP, made a callous statement to mourners at Olga Kekana’s funeral, stating, “One way or another we are all going to die, regardless of whether a cop shoots you or you were ill. Let’s not lose hope towards the police. Let’s keep trusting them. Forgiveness is what God wants. This was her destiny, let’s not blame the police.”

The military style crack-down comes as an estimated number of 500,000 football fans will flock to South Africa to attend the tournament. A rate of 50 murders a day is now an important matter of concern for FIFA, who put discreet pressure on Zuma to reign in crime, in order for the games to be a success.

The success of the World Cup would not only bring a substantial amount of money to the financially struggling rainbow nation, but would help allay reservations of businessmen in and out of the country. However, the increase in civilian deaths at the hands of the police and a slide towards a militarized state police has the country on edge. The dilemma between police and public security, and security for the prosperity of the nation, are interrelated and not easily laid to rest. The country is locked in a tense debate; one that will hopefully bring about justice for Kekana’s family and an end to the increasing deaths plaguing South Africa.

Courtney Cathcart recently transferred from Calgary to obtain a degree in global political economy at the U of M.