Let's transcend petty politicking

When the Western Cape government recently confirmed the appointment of Advocate Vusi Pikoli as the police ombudsman for the Western Cape, there was a flurry of opposition from the ANC. ANC Member of the Provincial Legislature, Pat Lekker, responded by saying that, 'the appointment is nothing else but a sycophantic reward for the services rendered in the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry..'. Pikoli, together with former Constitutional Court Justice, Kate O' Regan jointly headed the commission which focused on police ineffectiveness in Khayelitsha.

It seemed a rather small-minded response from Mr Lekker. The position of police ombudsman is the first of its kind on South Africa and was created in terms of the Western Cape's own Community Safety Act which came into effect last year. The ANC has accused the Western Cape government of trying to usurp national government's policing powers, specifically those of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), and also claims that the proper processes were not followed. The act allows for the premier to make a discretionary appointment.

It is probably worth remembering that former Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, now languishing in the Arts and Culture portfolio (showing again how little regard is given to the Arts, but that's a subject for another day), fought tooth and nail to prevent the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry even though it was abundantly clear that social activists in Khayelitsha were pushing for its establishment. After the commission released its findings, Groundup writer, Ayanda Nyoka, wrote, "The Khayelitsha report details a number of key findings, ranging from historical legacies of violent crime, poverty, the harmful effects of illegal shebeens and an over-burdened police force, to a complete breakdown of trust between the police and the community".

A police ombudsman is the start in trying to hear what communities experience and then trying to act upon that so that the commission's recommendations don't simply gather dust. Recently, the head of IPID Robert McBride appeared before Parliament and battled to answer even the most basic questions regarding provincial appointments. He inspired very little confidence and so one wonders quite how effective IPID really can be with such leadership? If that is the best the ANC can do regarding policing, perhaps more provinces should be appointing police ombuds?

The recent shooting of Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa showed again how far we are from dealing with the challenges of a violent society. Many tomes have been written about why we experience such high levels of violent crime. Violence has been a part of the language of this country almost since day one. Add to this the post-apartheid struggle to deal with joblessness and rising levels of inequality and our socio-economic environment becomes a toxic mix of hopelessness. The poor bear a disproportionate burden of random violence. It was Mamphela Ramphele who spoke about our 'social pain' and our need to recognise the deep collective anger which drives (mostly) young, black men, marginalised and excluded from the mainstream, to turn to crime.

There are, however, short-term solutions such as proper policing methods, more crime intelligence and better training for police as well as rooting out corruption in the police force, which might contain matters somewhat. Yet, we have seen the police crime intelligence being captured by political interests in the Richard Mdluli matter and intelligence gathered to fight narrow party political battles instead of being used to garner information about true criminal activity. In addition, the National Commissioner of Police, Riah Phiyega, remains in her job despite her disastrous tenure, which included Marikana and her frankly dismal evidence before the Farlam Commission.

We therefore can have little faith in the national leadership to be effective or to even begin to think creatively about dealing with high levels of violent crime. So, for the provincial ANC to take such a narrow-minded position in the face of community violence is again putting party interests above the interests of the citizenry. It might also be that the animus directed at Pikoli has something to do with his former position as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Lest we forget, he wanted to forge ahead with corruption charges against Jacob Zuma. Pikoli ultimately lost his job and the NPA has since then become embroiled in an unhealthy bout of political infighting.

Of course Pikoli will need staff and resources and also to set the proper precedents early on. What the Khayelitsha Commission showed was that the poor bear the brunt of weak policing and communities are living as fearful hostages to crime.

Perhaps for once, we can transcend petty politicking and just say that appointing a police ombudsman in the Western Cape is a good idea, no matter where the idea emanates from?

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).