News / Opinion / Columns

William Saunderson-Meyer
3 minute read
1 Jul 2017
5:35 am

When cops are involved in criminal activities, investigations halt

William Saunderson-Meyer

We must seek justice not only for Timol, but for anyone and everyone who has been the victim of police criminality.

Public Order Police officers during a demonstration of the POP unit's capabilities in the field at the SAPS training academy, 31 May 2017, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

Reputedly, the mills of the gods grind slowly but exceedingly fine. When the perpetrators of wrongs are police officers, it can seem that they simply grind to a halt.

This week, almost half a century after the events under scrutiny took place, a SA inquest court re-examined the supposed suicide of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol while held at John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg.

Coincidentally also this week, almost 30 years after Britain’s Hillsborough disaster in which 96 died, criminal charges were at last brought against six people for what happened there – including two senior police officers.

In South Africa, the process now under way is largely symbolic.

The possibilities of legal retribution are diluted by the passage of time, with only three of the officers implicated still alive.

While the lesson that the law will, eventually, collar the wrongdoer is important, these developments are also about bringing closure.

They are also a reminder that the police occupy an ambiguous place in society.

Protection can slide easily into aggression, or even repression.

The primary reason for the police is to form that “thin blue line” that shields civilians from a savage criminal underworld. But it is the state that pays salaries and determines senior appointments.

And in the case of the SA Police Service (SAPS), what a disaster has resulted from this. All three national commissioners appointed from within ANC ranks over the past 17 years, have been useless.

As the Institute of Security Studies pointed out with the launch of a campaign for a merit-based, transparent process to appoint the next national police commissioner, this is a crisis that has “destabilised the SAPS and fundamentally undermined public safety”.

That is an understatement.

Not only does lack of leadership mean that crime is rampant, but the police are often the offenders.

Statistics from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) identify the scale of the problem.

In 2015-16, there were 216 deaths in SAPS custody, while a further 366 people died as a result of police action.

Of those deaths, 66 – as supposedly was the demise of Timol – were claimed as suicides. Interim Ipid figures presented to the parliamentary oversight committee last week show a worrying upward trend for this year.

One cannot simply conclude from these statistics that the new SAPS is as bad as the apartheid-era one.

The one thing that has improved since the death of Timol is official record keeping. What hasn’t improved is our ability as a supposedly civilised society to provide law and order.

In the period 2015/16, Ipid managed to secure only four convictions for deaths in custody and 25 for deaths as a result of police actions.

From those 29 convictions for wrongful death, not a single one resulted in a jail sentence.

At the end of the day, it comes down not to mechanisms of government.

As with the reopening of the Timol inquest and the launch of the Hillsborough prosecutions, it ultimately comes down to the determination of ordinary people to hold their governments and their public servants to account.

We must seek justice not only for Timol, but for anyone and everyone who has been the victim of police criminality.

William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer.