AT TIMES South Africa’s police force seems rotten to the core—riddled with corruption, crime, dirty tricks, political machinations and even murder. On June 12th General Bheki Cele, the police chief, was “relieved of his duties” by President Jacob Zuma amid allegations of graft and dishonesty. His predecessor, Jackie Selebi, a former head of Interpol, was also fired after being found guilty of corruption and jailed for 15 years. Now the head of the police crime intelligence unit, Richard Mdluli, has been suspended, for a second time, after charges of murder and fraud. He had apparently hoped to get Mr Cele’s job.
Last year 5,869 formal complaints were laid against the police, mainly for assault and attempted murder. Police statistics concede that 566 people, including innocent bystanders, were shot dead or otherwise killed by the police in 2009-10; another 294 died in their custody. In the province of KwaZulu Natal an alleged police hit squad, known as the “Cato Manor” unit, was disbanded earlier this year after being accused of carrying out scores of assassinations of suspects. Some say the total number of the unit’s victims runs into hundreds. The rate of killings by South Africa’s police is among the world’s highest.
Corruption is also rampant. In a survey last year by Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog, 68% of urban South Africans said the police were “extremely corrupt”; a further 14% called them “quite corrupt”. In another survey, more than half of South Africa’s motorists claimed traffic police had asked them for a bribe in the previous 12 months.
Mwzandile Petros, chief of police in Gauteng, the country’s richest, most crime-ridden and most populous province, said that police graft and other misdemeanours were its biggest causes of crime. Gauteng police had arrested more than 600 of their own colleagues in the 18 months up to April this year, he said, for crimes ranging from attempted murder and assault to blackmail and burglary.
Last month a special team was set up to investigate a spate of so-called “blue-light” car hijackings in the province, operated by well-armed organised syndicates, including the police. Motorists in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria, Gauteng’s two main cities, were warned not to stop for unmarked vehicles with flashing blue lights which might try to pull them over or stop them at bogus police roadblocks. After three weeks the 40-member team had arrested 38 suspects, killed two more, recovered 34 hijacked cars and unmasked several officers as syndicate members.
But the unit has suddenly been shut down without explanation. As usual, political interference is suspected. Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, the country’s acting police chief during General Cele’s suspension, recently admitted that he had been instructed many times of late by “powers beyond us” not to pursue certain cases. He seemed to be referring in particular to Mr Mdluli; in his case, charges of embezzling police funds and murdering his former lover’s husband were suddenly dropped earlier this year. Some reports even claimed that he was being protected by President Zuma.
A few months earlier Mr Mdluli, then still head of the police crime intelligence unit, had given a secret report to Mr Zuma, alleging a plot by senior party members to remove him as leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Mr Mdluli also claimed a plot against himself by an anti-Zuma clique of senior police officials, including Mr Cele. After Mr Mdluli’s arrest and suspension on criminal charges last year, he was reinstated on government orders in March, only to be suspended again last month by Mr Mkhwanazi—acting in apparent defiance of his political bosses—after a legal opinion that the withdrawal of the charges had been “legally flawed”.
Some had expected Mr Mkhwanazi, a respected career officer, to succeed Mr Cele. But during his eight-month stint as acting police chief he apparently proved too independent and outspoken. In an interview last month he declared “war” on the extensive rot he claimed he had found within the police ranks. “I am cleaning out the house and will not stop until all the bad apples, regardless of who they are, are removed, once and for all,” he said. “I will prove that there are people strategically operating like the Mafia and I will deal with these people.”
Just over a month later he finds himself back in his old job as head of the police Special Task Force after the surprise appointment of Riah Phiyega, a businesswoman with no experience of policing, intelligence or security, as the country’s new police chief. Some ANC members fear that she will become a tool for those in power.
Mr Cele has vowed to challenge his sacking in court, claiming that a judicial commission of inquiry, set up by Mr Zuma to probe allegations of sleaze relating to the lease of police headquarters, was rigged. “Even if it bankrupts me, I will expose the abuses of power,” he said.