TUESDAY 1 June was an unusually bleak winter’s day in Pietermaritzburg after an overnight thunderstorm that lingered on into the morning together with Eskom power outages. It became even more remarkable in the university suburb of Scottsville and in particular Fairfield Avenue. Police, including a national reaction unit, surrounded a house and conducted an hour-long shoot out with its occupants. It ended with seven dead bodies and not a single police officer with a scratch. To complete the symmetry seven guns were reportedly retrieved.

The next day I walked down Fairfield Avenue and stood at the front gate of the house (see photo). Apart from a couple of pieces of yellow police tape in the gutter, all appeared normal. There was no indication that this had been the scene of a major shoot out and I was standing at what in another country would be a heavily policed spot. There was no crime scene. This raises serious questions. The answers are distressingly obvious.

Plesisslaer police station in the Edendale valley had the highest tally of murders for the first quarter of 2021 for the whole of South Africa. Such figures can be somewhat misleading as this station covers a large, particularly densely populated area. Nevertheless, there had been an alarming number of fatal hits in Imbali as well as one in the centre of Pietermaritzburg. Then, in April a van transporting prisoners to court was waylaid by AK-47-wielding gunmen in broad daylight near the Garrison Church and over 40 prisoners escaped. In a bizarre twist, six of them decided they had made an error of judgement and wisely ran straight to the Magistrate’s Court to hand themselves in.

One of the Fairfield Avenue gunmen was Sphlele Ntsuntsu Mkhize, a particularly nasty piece of work – a convicted rapist and murderer. Four others, it has been suggested, were implicated in the Imbali assassinations; and the other two were women. What happened to them has all the marks of a massacre. Why was this not a crime scene? It was visited late on Tuesday by the national Minister of Police Bheki Cele who, when police commissioner a decade ago, advocated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Were all the occupants firing at the police? Did any try to surrender? We shall never know because the only witnesses are police who are hardly disinterested and would simply claim to have been defending themselves.

This is a common scenario in South Africa – baddies 0, police 7, or some similar tally – although it generally happens out in the open. Indeed, just two weeks later an all-day battle ensued between police and four or five men alleged to be connected to the murder of a Durban policeman. Their vehicle was intercepted on the Table Mountain Road and a gunfight continued in the canefields of Bishopstowe (what Bishop John Colenso might have thought of this boggles the mind). Baddies 0 police 2 was the final score on this occasion, but two police dogs died; and there were probably three escapees.

All this is a two-day wonder that is met with general approval across society. South Africa has a chronic crime problem and the police are clearing up for us. The Fairfield Avenue massacre has no messy aftermath or legal consequences and costs: job done and dusted. Life goes on and we can feel more secure in our beds at night especially since the city is now overrun by paramilitary style security companies to make up for deficient or absent policing.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate has released figures indicating that between 2014 and 2019 SAPS personnel were responsible for 450 deaths per annum; one person every 20 hours; 8 per million population. Although comparisons with other countries have to be treated with extreme caution because of variations in statistical practice, it has been suggested that the SAPS figure is 2.5 times higher than that of the notoriously trigger-happy American police and 8.5 times the Canadian.[1] The number of successful prosecutions of SAPS personnel is minimal. While many of the deaths may be justified as self-defence, kill or be killed, the numbers are suspiciously and extraordinarily high.

One of the first rulings of the post-apartheid Constitutional Court in 1995 is known as Makwanyane: it marked South Africa’s entry to the civilised world by abolishing capital punishment. But there is good reason to argue that it has not been abolished at all: it is simply administered ad hoc without the tiresome bother of legal proceedings. Moral dimensions aside, this deprives the SAPS of a great deal of useful crime-fighting information, although its crime intelligence division is riven by factionalism and incompetence and is thought to harbour criminals.

The SAPS are expert at killing people. But as the vandalism and looting that followed the jailing of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court have shown, their public order policing capabilities are near zero. Have they never heard of water cannon as an antidote to arson and unlawful gatherings? And the overall culture of the SAPS (not very different from their apartheid-era predecessors of the SAP) could well be the weakest link in liberated South Africa that leads to national disintegration and the trappings of a failed state. This possibility is generally linked to economic collapse, but is just as likely to be a consequence of inadequate, incompetent and inappropriate policing.

[1] Paul T. Clarke, ‘Police killings’ Mail & Guardian 2 March 2021.