We are all prisoners of crime — and the SAPS must be held accountable

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (Designate) and former Executive Dean: Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article published in The Daily Maverick, 04 May 2021.

Like many other peace-loving South Africans, I am haunted by a spine-chilling video showing a deadly armed robbery of a civilian in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on 2 May 2021. In the video, shared by anti-crime activist and social cohesion advocate Yusuf Abramjee on Twitter, the robber follows an unsuspecting man in what looks like a secluded area before shooting him at point-blank range. After committing his heinous crime the robber walks away nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. In another robbery, a man snatches a cellphone from a female street vendor in daylight before dashing away.

In any normal country, such incidents would have drawn a national outcry that swiftly led to arrests, convictions and retributive justice for the victims and their families. Not in our case. It all seemed like just another day in the Republic. The robberies seem to have been forgotten as swiftly as the crimes were committed.

It is said that crime does not pay and that if you do the crime, you will do the time. As profound as the saying may sound, it does not look like it is often the case in South Africa. No matter the extent of the efforts to combat the scourge, the odds seem to be stacked in the favour of criminals. Criminals are living large instead of languishing behind bars. This is typical of any situation where the reward outweighs the risk. The inevitable result is a grim life where law-abiding citizens live in terror. It is a sink-or-swim situation for peace-loving South Africans.

The question, therefore, is why is it that we have to fathom life under such unpleasant circumstances? “Blame it on our apartheid past,” some may be tempted to say. Can we still, with a clear conscience, blame it on that without taking stock of what was done or not done in 27 years since the demise of apartheid? There are questions we grapple with, without clear-cut answers. Yet, we do not have to cast our eyes to distant places, beyond our immediate spaces, to identify the source of the fear that stalks us on every corner.

Of course, it will be foolhardy to deny that the enduring social issues such as poverty, joblessness and the widening gulf in inequalities must be addressed if we are to meaningfully deal with the scourge of crime. However, for a range of reasons, the police seem to be a key starting point. This is because they are a fundamental component of the criminal justice system. They have a legal duty to make sure all people and property in South Africa are safe and secure. Of course, in reality this solemn responsibility is easier said than done.

There are good police officers out there, or pockets of excellence, if you will. However, their good work seems to be drowned out — and undone — by the actions of those among them who must have no place in the police service. This is a group of rogue individuals with no intention to fulfil their constitutional obligation, which is to “prevent, combat and investigate crime, to maintain public order, to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property, and to uphold and enforce the law”. They taint the police service by botching criminal investigations, and in the worst instances, collude with criminals. It must be said that sometimes criminals do not do time, not because of shoddy police work, but because the criminal justice system is infiltrated by unscrupulous characters who are hellbent on defeating the ends of justice for a backhander.

Dirty and indolent police make it hard for the public to trust the police service. The distrust is exacerbated by a variety of widely publicised acts or omissions by some police officers. What’s with the reports of cases of police officers caught red-handed in cash-in-transit robberies? Or cops who were among the criminals involved in business robberies? Or police stations?

The crimes and criminality are too numerous to list, but it is all part of the quintessential story of South Africa. Ordinarily, communities where such stations are situated should be seething, feeling disgusted. If the police can’t protect themselves and their arsenal, how realistic is the expectation that they are fit and ready to protect residents within their jurisdictions?

Another antic involves an SMS by scammers informing a vehicle theft victim that their vehicle has been found at the border and they must pay a fee to be reunited with it. This is bothersome because someone or something must have passed on the victim’s details to the charlatans. Many law-abiding citizens have been conned this way after reporting their stolen vehicles to the police. Talk about being hit with a double whammy.

In such circumstances, it would be unfair to fault the victims for being gullible. There have been quite a few widely publicised stories of stolen vehicles resurfacing at South African border posts. Who can forget the sight of a bakkie that had been stolen in Sandton being discovered by the border police hitching a ride on a truck at the Lebombo border post under a mountain of thatch grass?

The menace of crime is emotionally and financially distressing. From a financial point of view, it is sensible for taxpayers to expect that their contribution to the state coffers should be used to protect them, their families and, most importantly, their property. However, such protection is more often than not conspicuous by its absence. Taxpayers are habitually forced to finance other security mechanisms to safeguard themselves. These include short-term insurance policies and living in gated communities. This is indefensible. Something has to be done.

The high crime rate in South Africa will require Parliament to expropriate large sums to finance the scheme. In a perfect world, this should put pressure on all involved to bring down costs by preventing crime and through concrete actions that should dissuade (would-be) criminals. However, in South Africa, things are more complicated.

Some people argue that the police are underpaid and, as a result, we should understand the situation. But this line of reasoning is unacceptable and should not be romanticised. The issue is not the validity of the argument about whether the pay is sufficient or not. The point is that being a police officer is a vocation — a calling, if you like — that one accepts freely and voluntarily.

As long as you are employed by the SAPS you must do what you are paid to do. Failure to (properly) discharge one’s duties should attract a disciplinary process and corrective measures. There must be an effective line of accountability in the fight against crime in this country. It should start with the president and filter through to all the other concerned parties until it reaches the bobby on the beat. That will set the country on the right course towards much-needed public confidence in the police.

What about the victims of crimes? Countries such as Germany have a compensation scheme for crime victims, founded on the victim’s right to compensation from the perpetrator, or, if the wrongdoer does not have the resources, from the state. This idea was covered at length by the South African Law Reform Commission in its Project 82 report in April 2004. Could this be something for South Africa? The answer is not straightforward. Such a scheme, if paid for from the fiscus, will mean an additional financial burden on the taxpayer.

The high crime rate in South Africa will require Parliament to expropriate large sums to finance the scheme. In a perfect world, this should put pressure on all involved to bring down costs by preventing crime and through concrete actions that should dissuade (would-be) criminals. However, in South Africa, things are more complicated. Judging by the lack of meaningful headway since the publication of the law commission’s report and the appalling track record of many public schemes, such a programme does not seem to have a fair chance of success.

All said and done, a high crime rate, a weak criminal justice system and an ineffective police service is a perfect recipe for vigilantism. In the case of the police, it seems what is required is to go back to the basics in the spirit of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, and the South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995.

This entails serving and protecting all persons and their property in the country; collaborating with the community they serve in their quest to combat crime; treating the victims of crime with the requisite respect and understanding; and, most importantly, being accountable and open to civilian supervision. Resources permitting, the effective use of technology should be an integral part of our criminal justice system.

The stern words of Police Minister Bheki Cele, on the release of the 2020/21 third-quarter crimes statistics, are to be welcomed: “We expect a turnaround plan to be adopted and executed urgently and effectively. Failure to do so must result in consequences. Commissioner, there must be ACCOUNTABILITY! It can’t be business as usual. We must all have sleepless nights over these crime numbers. We must exert ourselves in the quest to deliver our mandate as the SAPS, which is to PROTECT and SERVE the people of this country. This is a matter of life and death and complacency won’t be tolerated.”

As they say in Setswana, re tlare ke dipitsi, ra bona ka mebala (seeing is believing).

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

professor letlhokwa george mpedi
Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi


“There are good police officers out there, but their good work seems to be undone by the actions of those who must have no place in the police service. The criminal justice system is infiltrated by unscrupulous characters who are hellbent on defeating the ends of justice for a backhander.’’

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