People are outraged by a racist comment by a model, but they don’t seem to care whether a very dangerous cop is given free rein – or whether he is suddenly given a sideways promotion. They don’t seem to understand that this is not something abstract. It is something that, ultimately, impacts directly on their own lives.
By sheer coincidence, yesterday I sat on a plane next to a woman I have known for five years. I first met her a few months after her young son was murdered in a gut-wrenching crime. She bears the look that one comes to know all too well in a career as a frontline journalist: the dull eyes and forced smile of a parent who has lost a child but is doing everything in their power to move beyond it.
She is one of the “fortunate” few who has seen her son's killer being prosecuted and convicted and has therefore seen the country's criminal justice system in full, effective motion. But she is all too aware of the others, those who have been failed and are still searching for answers. If anyone has the authority to speak as a victim, on behalf of other concerned citizens, it is her.
As she sat cradling her sleeping toddler on her lap mid-flight, she pointed at the newspaper clutched in her free hand and began to talk about how worried she was. From the front page of the folded broadsheet beamed Richard Mdluli's Cheshire grin.
“I don't usually read the newspapers. I find them too depressing,” she said. “But I'm really worried about this guy. If he gets real power we'll be on a slippery slope as a country. If we have an ineffective police service, the country will be ungovernable. The corruption is endemic. And there is so much apathy. I think a lot of people are like me. They find the newspapers too depressing so they just ignore them.”
I wondered whether the layman quite grasped the gravitas of the Mdluli story. I had a fairly good gauge from Twitter over the past few days that, while there was large-scale reporting going on about the controversial head of crime intelligence, citizens weren't shouting from the rooftops as much as they could've been. When I posted tweets about model Jessica Leandra dos Santos' racial outburst, they were re-tweeted dozens of times and for days I received responses, thick with emotion.
Yet when I tweeted the breaking news of Mdluli's shift from his position, as announced in Parliament by the police minister on Wednesday, the replies were sporadic and largely uninformed.
Just days ago we saw the power of public pressure in action, as the vexed issue of e-tolls came before the courts. It was the sway of mass criticism, galvanised and deftly channelled, that saw tolling being temporarily derailed. Why aren't people mobilising against the shenanigans in the SAPS in the same way they're protesting against e-tolls and paid parking in Parkhurst? I wondered. Is it because people can't see the practical effect it will have on their day-to-day lives?
But while you can't see the impact today, or tomorrow, it will come and you should be worried now.
Richard Mdluli is a career policeman. He has been in the service for over 30 years, starting out on Johannesburg's East Rand during the apartheid era. His name first began to creep into the public domain around the time former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi was being prosecuted for corruption and President Jacob Zuma was fending off similar allegations.
The story goes that Selebi's allies, who were waging a dirty war with the Scorpions, began secretly recording the unit’s bosses in an attempt to uncover any dirt they could use to protect Selebi. During the clandestine operation, they stumbled upon discussions featuring the Zuma case. The big guns at crime intelligence, including Mdluli, realised the political currency they could gain from what they had uncovered and delivered the tapes to Zuma's lawyer. Charges against Zuma were withdrawn on the basis of those recordings.
Then in 2011, a 12-year-old murder case popped up involving Mdluli's ex-lover’s husband and he was arrested and suspended from the SAPS. A case of fraud and corruption then emerged and it all began to unravel. Since then we've heard allegations of the abuse of slush funds, blatant corruption, nepotism, blackmail, intimidation and all-round disregard for the law.
Despite this the two separate cases against Mdluli were effectively abandoned and he was given back his job as head of crime intelligence with increased authority and power. It looked for all to see as though there had been outright political interference in the decision. Investigators and prosecutors were silenced and bullied. Some spoke about how they believed senior NPA officials were coming to the rescue of Mdluli, because they were his friends and he had helped them out in the past.
There were reports that the minister of police and the president had even stepped in to ensure investigations were quashed and Mdluli went back to his job. One particularly outraged official with intimate knowledge of the case says it was a complete travesty.
“The Constitution requires equality before the law for all. It's the only thing that stands between Joe Soap and chaos. The NPA must work without fear and favour and for the taxpayer and not on a personal whim whether to prosecute or not. The Constitution cannot simply be shifted depending on who you are. No personal or political favors are acceptable!”
Since then we have heard about how Mdluli attempted to ingratiate himself with Zuma, writing him a letter promising to help him win a second term as ANC leader. He also produced a hugely controversial intelligence report, detailing how Zuma's allies were planning to overthrow him. Mdluli now claims he too is the victim of a plot and that other senior cops are planning to oust him.
When he was given autonomous control of the VIP Protection Unit which takes care of Cabinet ministers’ security and it became known that he had the final say on whose phones could be tapped, everyone really began to panic. He seemed to enjoy the protection of his political principles and no one truly knew why.
It is a story mired in politics. And therein lies the problem. We all have the ideal of an independent police service, free of any influence or agenda. We want the rule of law to be respected and we want to know that if we fall victim to crime, we can have faith and trust in an effective law enforcement authority.
But in the Mdluli story we can see that ideal beginning to fall apart. We see how senior police officers can be manipulated for personal political agendas and how they can be influenced by ego, greed and power rather than by integrity, duty and ethics. If none of the allegations against Mdluli have been proven in a court of law, the public perception of the SAPS has been irrevocably damaged.
But the problem is far greater. Relationships of trust within the service have also collapsed. The good cops, who are dedicated and devoted, suspect everyone else of being rotten. They're constantly looking over their shoulders, too scared to speak on their phones or share information with officers in other units, because their colleagues may be after them. There is a culture of fear which has taken grip.
Earlier this week, I sat with three vastly experienced, heavily decorated current and retired police officers, with a collective experience of close on 100 years. The mood was dire. They lamented the drastic decline of the SAPS and spoke about how worried they were about the effect this was having on the really good policemen and women.
“We're about 10% away from rock bottom,” one of them said to me. “If we catch it now, we can probably restore it in about 10 years or so. But if we let it really hit rock bottom, it could take 30 years to really get it back”.
His colleague agreed. “Ja, we reckon there's about a five to 10-year window period left until all the experience and institutional memory is gone.”
For them, the Mdluli affair is the tipping point. I asked them why the average person should give a damn about the entire debacle.
“It creates a perception to police officers that it’s okay and acceptable to be corrupt as long as you are ‘connected’ with the right people, that it’s okay to influence and compromise the outcome of investigations. It creates distrust between those in senior management. The country will become chaotic and ungovernable.”
As I sat on the plane and watched the stoic mother cradling her toddler, I thought about the police officers’ ominous warning. What if the same tragic crime was to befall her family again today - would the police act as swiftly to catch her child's killer? Would they have the drive and willingness to do so? Most crucially, would she have the confidence to invest her trust in the officers, with an assurance that they will do whatever necessary to see justice done?
Somehow I doubt it.
This column also appeared in The Daily Maverick.