In many informal settlements such as Khayelitsha, a township in the Western Cape, justice is, in practice, a privilege rather than a right. Crime levels are high and victims of theft or violence often find no solace in the arms of the police. In fact, the police services in Khayeltisha are arguably better known for their brutality, inefficiency, corruption, and insensitivity than their ability to deliver justice or protection. This in turn encourages some residents to take justice into their own hands.
According to South Africa's 2013 crime statistics, Khayelitsha had the highest number of reported crimes for murder, sexual crimes, attempted murder and assault with the intent to do grievous harm. Meanwhile, a recent survey in the township suggested that the majority of residents have little faith in the police's ability to combat crime or even the service's respect for the community.
Part of the problem is that police in Khayelitsha are hugely under-resourced. In some parts of the settlement, for example, there is only one detective for every 2,500 people, a sharp contrast with the 1-to-1,000 ratio typically found in more affluent parts of the Western Cape such as Stellenbosch and Sea Point. This leads to cases being neglected, dockets going missing, staff going absent, low morale, and mistakes being made.
In 2010, for instance, three men facing multiple counts of attempted murder had to be released after the police failed to bring their case docket to court on three consecutive occasions. In another incident that same year, Dr Genine Josias of the Thuthuzela Care Centre alerted the police after treating five girls below the age of nine who had been raped. She contacted a senior police officer who didn't take any action before phoning Provincial Commissioner Mzwandile Petros, but still little was done. The police did not even warn local residents and by the time the rapist was finally apprehended, 16 more girls had been assaulted, one of whom died after the attack.
These previous two instances of the police's failure to protect or prosecute were presented earlier this year to the Commission of Inquiry into Khayelitsha Policing. The commission began listening to testimony in January in order to better understand the service's problems and come up with recommendations for reforms.
For many, an examination of the police service is well overdue, but despite concerted efforts, establishing the body was not easy. Determined attempts to shine a light on the failures of Khayelitsha's justice and policing systems stretch many years back. In 2003, for example, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a local NGO, started campaigning for better policing, safety, and security in townships after one of its members, Lorna Mlofana, was raped and murdered for being HIV positive. And since then, TAC, along with the Social Justice Coalition, Free Gender, Triangle Project, Equal Education, Ndifuna Ukwazi, and others have held scores of demonstrations, pickets and marches against the continued failures of the Khayelitsha police and criminal justice system, as well as submitted multiple petitions and memoranda to various levels of government.
One of the reasons for the authorities' failure to take action seems to have been political. The Western Cape is controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and some believe that disputes between the DA and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) undermined the process of setting up a commission. When Helen Zille, the DA's premier of the Western Cape, tried to establish the body in 2012, for instance, the ANC's then Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, and other police representatives took the commission to both the High Court and Constitutional Court in an attempt to halt its work, claiming the body was unlawful and that issuing subpoenas against senior police authorities was "demeaning" and "undignified." Both courts eventually ruled in favour of the commission in January and October 2013.
In the first phase of its duties, the commission − led by former Constitutional Court judge, Justice Kate O'Regan, and former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Vusi Pikoli − listened to testimony from around 100 people including members of the South African Police Service (SAPS), experts in various fields, government officials and Khayelitsha residents. Tens of thousands of pages of information have also been submitted to the commission to help with its work.
The commission heard stories of gross violations of the rights to life, human dignity, equality and freedom amongst others. It also listened to tales of police brutality, corruption and insensitivity towards victims of crime and discussed the police's lack of resources and support.
The commission conducted its final public hearing on 19 May and is now in the process of composing a series of recommendations that will be sent to Premier Zille by 11 July, and then passed on to the Minister of Police.
Activists hope that these figures will take heed of the proposals and implement them, but many are also aware that their struggle didn't end with the establishment of the commission. In many ways, the hard work will start afresh once the panel completes its work.
“It is mostly up to activists, civil society organisations and all the complainants to follow up on the recommendations and make sure they are being followed,” says Axolile Notywala, a member of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and resident of Khayelitsha.
Indeed, historically, civil society organisations have been at the forefront of addressing social and political problems in Khayelitsha and much of South Africa, from highlighting corruption to improving access to education and healthcare to tackling problems in the police service. NGOs such as the SJC are crucial to ensure people can “walk in the streets at night without fear of being robbed or raped or even murdered,” as Notywala puts it. Or, as Nkosikhona Swartbooi, an activist with the SJC and Ndifuna Ukwazi says, civil society campaigns are central in the drive to "end inequality and injustice amongst the people of South Africa."
However, activists know that they may not find it easy to push forwards the commission's proposed reforms. After all, the activity of NGOs is not always welcomed by authorities, especially when it is seen to be causing problems for figures in power.
“There's fear, especially now that there is Angy’s case," says Notywala, referring to Angy Peter. Peter and her husband Isaac Mbadu, two SJC activists who were closely involved in the campaign to set up the commission, were arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping in October 2012. They are now on trial and claim that they have been framed by police. Peter and Mbadu's fellow campaigners hope they will be acquitted. But should they be convicted, not only will they both be sentenced to life imprisonment, but other activists may be silenced, fearing a similar fate.
Activists are well aware of these dangers, but are compelled to continue in spite of them. “It’s an endeavour that is worth fighting for and dying for if need be," says Swartbooi. "If we die then we will die knowing that our children, family and friends will get to live in a safe and dignified community.”
Civil society organisations were crucial in the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into Khayelitsha Policing and they will be central in driving forwards reforms too. But for the problems in the South African Police Service and criminal justice system to be fixed more broadly, their work will need to extend beyond just Khayelitsha. In the sense of being heavily civil society-driven, the Khayelitsha commission was the first of its kind in South Africa, and Notywala thinks that other communities should follow suit.
“The issues that have been uncovered through the commission are not isolated − they are issues across the country," he says. Notywala suggests that activists throughout South Africa can learn from the process it took to establish the commission and campaign for their own area-specific bodies. Some, such as Julie Berg, a criminologist from the University of Cape Town who testified before the commission, have also suggested that Khayelitsha could be used as a "testing ground" for reforms and new policies that could be adopted in other areas.
For now though, Khayelitsha residents are awaiting to hear the commission's recommendations. "There is a difference in access to the justice system for people in townships," says Notywala, but, he hopes, helping to fix the problems within the SAPS one township at a time could help South Africa move towards making justice and protection a reality for all.
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