Mzwandile Petros - good interview or spin?
Sipho Hlongwane asks if Petros is the answer to Gauteng's crime.
Radio has an amazing power. In our country, it is still the greatest media entity, leaving print publications and television in the dust. So if you want to talk to the people, you go on radio. There’s also the power that clever radio presenters have. They can, in a matter of minutes, reduce a once-respected public figure into an obfuscating liar or a reckless buffoon in the eyes of the public. Do you remember the interview that 702’s Redi Tlhabi did with the state’s chief law advisor Enver Daniels on the State Protection of Information Bill at the end of 2010? Here was the man who was central to the crafting of the controversial bill, and he had an opportunity to explain himself. Instead, he ducked and dived and came across as a conniver and deceiver. That one interview probably did more to harden public attitudes against the bill than any other media story. BBC’s HARDtalk television programme has that power on a global level. If you fudge your 30-minute chat with Stephen Sackur, you can kiss your reputation goodbye.
There’s a flipside though: if you shine in such forums, you can be assured that your reputation will be golden for a long time after that. That’s the gamble you have to take if you either have an extremely difficult job (like the police boss in the most crime-riddled province) or you actually have to explain yourself for some reason.
Petros took a gamble by agreeing to be interviewed on 702. If he messed up, his reputation would be blown. And it is not like he has nothing to lose. He is the face of crime-fighting in Gauteng, and lots of people are unhappy with a lot of what the police service is doing. Still, he came. So, plus five points for him for bravery from the outset.
Petros had statistics to back him up. There is the general drop in crime rates around the country, and there are interventions that Gauteng is carrying out. “There are nine generators of crime. Central to all of them is corruption among the law enforcement officers,” he said. “We have made a commitment that we will fight crime, and not only that, but we will be seen to be doing so. People always ask me ‘are you not embarrassed’ when we arrest police. I say that we are happy that we are doing it ourselves.”
Some 760 police officers were arrested last year, and 291 were dismissed under the departmental eviction provision.
The strategies of deploying flying squad units to the highways and roads, increasing patrols and targeting certain crimes have worked, he said.
“We have had good success with ATM bombers. Deploying the flying squad to our roads has reaped dividends. This has helped the public with a feeling of safety because people know where the police cars are. We were sitting with a blue-light gang a few months ago and that is now gone,” Petros said.
We should not be expecting that patrol cars deployed onto the highways should be doing a large number of arrests, as several callers-in demanded. Their primary duty is to prevent crime by being visible on priority routes, and people can actually plan their routes based on where cop cars park, because they know that if anything happens, they can be helped within five kilometres.
Another intervention that Petros mentioned was that communities are now given the cell phone numbers of patrol cars in their areas so that they can call the unit instead of a police station in case of an emergency. That has shortened response time greatly.
In spite of all of this, Petros said, the war against crime in the so-called ‘gangster’s paradise’ is not over yet. “Every time you win a battle you are taking a step towards winning the war. But we are nowhere near to winning the war yet.”
Criminals in Gauteng are re-strategising to overcome near interventions by the police, the commissioner said. The commissioners in North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo are now holding regular meetings to devise province-wide crime-busting strategies to stop gangs fleeing Gauteng to commit crimes in neighbouring provinces.
There were two very tough questions for Petros: How do the public deal with corrupt officers, and why should we believe that he has anything to offer us when station commanders at his post in the Western Cape doctored crime figures?
His answer to the first question was to say that the public actually already has the tools to combat petty corruption. He slyly answered each anecdote thrown at him with a case study of what the victim should have done. In the case of a lawyer that spent the night in a holding cell for apparently refusing to pay a bribe, Petros said each vehicle carries an incident log, as does the station itself. Each person put into a cell has to be recorded as well. In other words, that lawyer could prove that she was wrongfully arrested by referring to those log books in her case. The message was clear: the cops that are getting away with corruption mostly do so because people are ignorant of their rights.
Yusuf Abramjee asked Petros if the specialised drug units would be coming back, and the commissioner displayed his gift of being able to turn a tough question into an advantage by telling a story of a drug raid in the suburbs that yielded an arms cache and other instruments used for hijackings and house break-ins. The way police operate now is that a large number of officers operate under one leader. They share work and equip each other so that they are all capable of handling many different types of investigations.
In the case of the corrupt Western Cape station commanders, Petros said, “[Crime fighting] is not just about that [statistics]. It is also about what is visible. When I arrived in the Western Cape, instances of violent crime and taxi violence and other things was very high. When I left, it was gone.”
Of all the callers-in who either praised Petros or asked him to solve their local problem (you don’t do that if you don’t think the person you’re asking can solve your problem) none did more to bolster his image than near-legendary citizen crime-buster Paul O’Sullivan. “I have never, in the 25 years that I have lived in Johannesburg,” he said, “seen so many patrol cars on the roads. Every morning I take a different route for my morning run, and each time I see cop cars. There is an increasing amount of stop-and-searches. The patrol cars deployed to the highways are like a beacon of hope.”
And there sat Petros, basking in the glow of the praise. After the hour-long segment was over, the small audience burst into applause. In their eyes, the real intent of the interview was written. After the scandals of Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele, the citizens of Gauteng desperately want to know that they have a cop on their side. And in Petros, they believe that they have found one.
Just in case you seriously doubt that Petros is the media darling that we’ve been all waiting for (after the uproarious chest-thumper Cele has retired), see his words at the end of the interview: “There is a hope. If we can deal with crime in Gauteng, which contributes to 50% of all crime in South Africa, we will have gone a very long way in defeating crime in South Africa.”
The gathered audience at Primedia Place thumped their hands together rather gleefully.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.