Can we still trust the cops?

Can we still trust the cops? Panel discussion with Antony Altbeker, Liza Grobler, Marianne Thamm and Andrew Brown, 17 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


In what was arguably one of the most engaging panels of the weekend, writer at large Antony Altbeker led a thoughtful and intelligent discussion on the question of whether the cops in the country can still be trusted. It would appear that the answer is a qualified yes in some areas and instances, and an outright no regarding the top brass of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

The discussion starts with an estimation of the number of corrupt cops in the SAPS. Crossing the Line author Grobler, certainly not a fan of the SAPS by any means, leans towards a ratio of 30 out of a hundred corrupt police officers in SA. As a counterpoint, author, lawyer and police reservist Brown offers a more tempered and seemingly more textured response to the issue of trusting the police when he points out how much better our policing appears to be than in various authoritarian states and African countries, where someone like Edwin Cameron would be a target for the police. To Catch a Cop author Marianne Thamm speaks at length about Paul O’Sullivan, the man who brought Jackie Selebi to book along with Gerrie Nel, who argues that the police are largely competent at their job. It’s just that they need better management and improved training. Sullivan sees himself as an “uber cop” according to Thamm, and, conversely, points out that the ANC should leave the internal politics aside and focus on organised crime, as spearheaded by men like Radovan Krejcir.

Jackie Selebi and Glenn Agliotti get a right roasting from the panel, with no exception. Brown mentions how police morale plummeted after Selebi’s “joke” about never having worn a police uniform before coming into office and the peril of political appointments; Grobler notes how Selebi damaged the police service with floods of untrained and potentially tainted cops; Altbeker states that interviewing the man is so pleasurable because of his ignorance of his own utterances; Thamm mentions how Selebi once addressed Interpol in a suit bought by Agliotti.

One of the most gripping accounts is provided by Brown when speaking of his diverse experiences as police reservist since the early nineties, after serious agitation during the struggle. He was weary of wearing the police uniform, and well aware of the complexities of now working with rather than as an antagonist towards the police. Brown trusts the police 100%. He notes how areas like Lavender Hill are immensely difficult to police for cops living in the area, and that “outside” officers in Operation Siyeza could, for example, only hold the fort until they left on a Sunday, now “unofficial” killing time.

Thamm speaks of her time shadowing O’Sullivan, and that various examples emerged of people not knowing who was guilty and who trustworthy, especially at police stations. Italy is given as an example where institutionalised crime and corruption is much worse, which the audience seem to appreciate.

Altbeker asks the panel what they can do about grievances with the police. Thamm underscores knowing our rights, working with police, and not offering bribes. Of particular importance is “not to get shrill”, to which Altbeker jests: “Don’t say ‘I pay your salary’”. The audience is in stitches. Brown gets serious for a moment, and says that complaints can only be taken seriously if citizens actively make an effort to know who they are being policed by.

As a corrective to police ills, Grobler states that the SAPS needs to be rebuilt from the ground up: politicians must get the boot, new recruits need ethics training and stronger command and control protocols need to be in place. Brown offers the example of sector policing as a great success in suburban Cape Town: the more knowledgeable citizens and police members are about communities, the better the policing can be. An increase in access difficulties and more volatile conditions, along with gangsters being able to target “live in” police officers in townships, make sector policing more difficult here. The session closes with Brown admitting that he continues to serve as a reservist because he feels that he makes a difference after every shift, no matter how small this difference might be. He gets a hearty round of welcome applause from the audience.

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