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Ganglands and our “stubborn police stations”

The present spell of protests in the many ganglands of Gauteng and Western Cape is revealing. Focussing on high numbers of crime reports at particular police stations does not address the systemic socio-economic reasons that lead to crime. Too often, police are being scapegoated and blamed wholesale for the scourge of crime. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya believes that it is really politicians that should be taking the lion’s share of the blame. They are quite literally getting away with murder. At the very least politicians are greatly advancing and enabling the corruption and injustice that we are witnessing – even if only by their inability to deal adequately with the many facets of the crime problem.

Imagine if SA's bishops were to come together and decide that they are going to judge a particular priest or parish’s effectiveness based on the levels of crime in the jurisdiction of their parish. Seems, absurd, doesn’t it?

In many ways, the move by the political establishment to pin the levels of crime on police stations is like wanting to judge a parish based on the high number of crimes reported in its neighbourhood.

To be fair to politicians, police absolutely have the mandate to control crime and are enjoined by law to prevent it from happening. When crimes occur, it is their role to find the perpetrators and to hand them over to the prosecuting authorities, with enough evidence to secure their conviction.

When the police's rate of finding perpetrators is low, a criminal’s willingness to take chances with the law increases. In this way, the cycle of crime is perpetuated and incidences of crime increase greatly.

There is clearly a role for parishes to play in fighting crime. Admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy. Parishioners and priests are obliged to report known criminals in the community.

That said, crime remains intractable in South Africa, and for reasons other than shoddy police work or parishioner indifference – important as their roles are.

Politicians routinely promise to provide new police stations and to offer greater police visibility to crime-afflicted communities.  In some instances, these promises are met. In others, budgetary constraints limit their ability to realise promises; but too often, promises are just politicians' rhetoric to say what they think their constituency wants to hear so that they can win support when voting time comes.

In Gauteng, politicians have given a name to police stations most likely to have recurring cases of serious crimes. They call them “stubborn police stations”.

“A stubborn police station is when interventions have been initiated in terms of improving the performance of that police station and then after those interventions, you don't see any improvement and we then declare them as stubborn police stations”, said Gauteng Community Safety minister Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane.

Even a cursory understanding of societies will reveal that crimes are always a reflection of the social structures within which they take place.

Variables such as recreational facilities, maintenance of public amenities such as parks and open spaces, employment levels, education and town-planning. All, play an important role in determining whether an area would be more or less prone to serious crimes.

In South Africa, we have the added element of a celebrated culture of violence, patriarchal attitudes, a wealth-poverty gap that makes SA “the most unequal country in the world” according to the World Bank, crass materialism, consumerism and a growing culture of impunity within the criminally-inclined political and economic elite.

There is precious little that police can do to arrest the hopelessness and fatalism that is eating at the heart of desperate communities like Westbury, the Cape Flats area, Zola in Soweto and Umlazi in Durban. Police can police ghettoes but they cannot be held responsible for ungentrified public spaces.

In September, last month, various working-class communities in the Western Cape, the most affected by gangsterism and drugs, staged demonstrations to highlight their unhappiness with the State’s inattention to their plight. Thirteen protesters were arrested as a result.

It is ironic yet telling that in Westbury and Cape Town townships, police spent more energy and resources attending to the complaints of those who protested than on responding and investigating the actual crimes which led to the protests.

It was to be expected. Police did what they were trained to do, and what they do best in South Africa: they quelled the unrest.

It is unfair and unreasonable to expect the police to solve all of the problems that the communities were complaining about.

Specialised police training can help to train police in the skills needed to successfully and safely apprehend gangsters involved in crimes and to find drug peddlers. However, it is beyond their purview and, likely, competence, to study why some communities are more prone to the intergenerational curse of gangsterism and drugs than others.

Drug abuse needs to be treated more as a social health problem than as a criminal issue. A comprehensive fight against drugs and drug use should include pre-exposure awareness programmes and accessible facilities for those who seek help, which we simply cannot expect the police to provide.

As things stand, addicts who earnestly want to quit and kick their bad habits are treated as criminals, instead of as patients in need of serious care and intervention. There is very little support to empower the families who have to live with the addict.

This is not to say that those who manufacture and sell drugs should not be arrested, criminally charged, prosecuted and jailed. It is, however, to highlight the multiple approaches needed when attending societal ills.

According to fact-checking agency Africa Check in August 2018, “the most recent data from the World Health Organisation shows that South Africa’s femicide rate was 12,1 per 100 000 in 2016. This is almost five times higher than the global average of 2,6.”

Official 2017/18 police statistics show that 40 035 cases of rape were reported. This marked a jump of 0,5% compared to the previous year. The numbers have been hovering at over 40 000 for the last decade. A staggering 48 408 cases were reported in the 20212/13 period.

Again, Africa Check confirms that “at least half of murdered women in South Africa die at the hands of their intimate partners.”

The same applies to rape. Women are more likely to be sexually attacked by someone they know and trust than by a total stranger.

These crimes reflect a misogynistic and patriarchal culture that cannot simply be annihilated with the sending of more police boots onto the streets.

It is not within the police’s mandate to create legislation that forces men to treat women with respect, gives girls and young women opportunities to better their lives and helps women to report their abusive male lovers and gives them the wherewithal to leave violent relationships.

Prison rehabilitation programmes are counterproductive. Especially, if those previously convicted are reintroduced to society under the same conditions that led them to resort to crime at all.

Apart from the unshakeable stigma that comes from the prefix “ex-con”, they are forced to reenter an ever-shrinking job market with a criminal conviction on record and to negotiate an economy firmly in the doldrums.

Tragically, the current conditions in society encourage reoffending and the establishment of clandestine markets for the trading of stolen goods. Given the bleak and limited prospects of previous offenders, the low probability of being caught hey quickly return to their old ways. Worse still, is the high probability that many of those caught will not be convicted for their crimes.

There can be no denying that police have an important role to play in curbing crime. We should, however, remember that the opportunities and the ultimate decisions that one takes to do crime are greatly enabled and expedited by the social and economic deficiencies we witness in our communities.

If we are to halt the scourge of crime, we must all play our role. The police alone cannot be blamed for the systemic inadequacies of a government that has been tasked with social welfare but has failed dismally. The responsibility to deal with crime is a collective one. If we don’t, our collective demise is at stake and we will all be to blame for not having done our part, in time.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.