Sheriff Mbaloser’s gunfight at ANC corral

In a pinch-me-I-am-dreaming moment, Fikile Mbaloser has managed to produce yet another set of remarks destined for Hall of Demagogic Infamy, in which he is already well represented.

GARETH VAN ONSELEN

Because he is a clown, one who thinks politics is showmanship, not governance, his antics are generally indulged as the sort of egomaniacal chest-thumping one might expect of, say, a Hlaudi Motsoeneng. All very comical. Only he now has 180000 people with guns looking to him for leadership.

So when he says to them, “Even if you do not have a warrant of arrest‚ slap them. Break the law progressively and let me worry about court cases”, even those who follow him for his theatrics alone, should take a minute to consider the following:

Here is a man, chosen from 55 million South Africans to uphold and embody the rule of law, who has now told the police – the actual agents of justice – to ignore it; indeed, to consciously violate it, and to indulge in a bit of torture and physical abuse along the way.

Effectively, he broke the law; if not technically – and, quite frankly, someone should lay a complaint and find out – then in spirit.

And he broke it deliberately in front of the South African Police Service itself.

In a normal constitutional democracy this would be an instantaneous, fireable offence.

In South Africa, his conduct is overseen by a president who has bent the entire justice system to his will, and so he is able to act with the kind of impunity you would more readily associate with Idi Amin.

Not just impunity but wholesale agreement. Jacob Zuma, the king of demagogues, has long since provided his own, warped understanding of crime fighting and the role of the justice system.

He has advocated before that South Africa do away with bail for suspects in certain crimes.

“Maybe we should think about scrapping bail for specific crimes, such as rape, killing, and robbery,” he proposed in 2008.

Also, and without a hint of irony, he has suggested that suspects be found guilty by judges even without compelling evidence.

“[Judges should convict] even if there are facts that are short,” he said in 2002.

Had both those recommendations ever been realised, they would have directly and adversely affected his own fortunes.

But for the ANC, governance is not about the ANC.

Party members are precluded from the laws and norms by which the rest of us abide.

They exist in a separate universe. One where hypocrisy, not moral conviction, and self-interest, not compassion or empathy, determine one’s world view.

All are held together by the special brand of arrogant ignorance the likes of Mbaloser exude through every pore.

Both Zuma and Mbaloser can talk openly about how the law should be broken because both operate outside of it. Theirs is the perfect political racket.

Mbaloser’s comments are symptomatic of a country in the grips of a low-grade civil war.

The police must “crush” the balls of criminals, he said last week, before suggesting they be made to drink their own urine.

More disturbing still, it was reported the police then echoed back, “They must drink their urine.”

We now have a situation where, no doubt, the official opposition will be forced to ask a parliamentary question requesting the minister to explain whether or not torture will be set down in official policy and to quantify exactly how many balls have been crushed and suspects made to drink their own waste.

Is this a constitutional dispensation? Or is it a ramshackle town in the Wild West, with a sheriff, mad with power, whose attitude is indistinguishable from the lawless disdain he is supposed to control? It’s a close call. Mbaloser seems one step away from personally challenging people to a gunfight at high noon.

In The Quick and the Dead, the tyrant sheriff John Herod (played by the ever-brilliant Gene Hackman), says to his townsfolk: “All I hear from you, you spineless cowards, is how poor you are, how you can’t afford my taxes. Yet somehow, you managed to find the money to hire a gunfighter to kill me.

“If ya got so much money, I’m just gonna have to take some more. Because clearly some of you haven’t got the message!

“This is my town! I run everything! If you live to see the dawn, it’s because I allow it! I decide who lives and who dies!”

Mbaloser must have watched that. He must have quite a collection of Westerns. But you get the sense he didn’t watch to the end. It doesn’t end well for Herod.

“You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations.”

So said then deputy minister of safety and security Susan Shabangu in 2008. Mbaloser is not clever enough to be original.

In 2012, the police certainly did not hesitate at Marikana. They shot to kill then. Thirty-eight people died. But, as promised, the consequences were expertly suppressed.

Five years later, we still await some final resolution.

If police do actually start torturing suspects in the manner Mbaloser suggests, at least we will be able to trace directly the origins of the behaviour.

He has given them a mandate and for that he needs to be held personally and directly accountable.

One of the reasons Mbaloser is acting like this, is because the ANC is incapable of producing a good, reliable and effective national commissioner.

Because of the extent of the incompetence in the ANC government, and the ever-present vacuum at the heart of the police force, Mbaloser is now effectively acting in that role.

He demands warrants of arrest be issued, he issues updates on criminal proceedings, he tells police what actions they should or should not take.

It is a fundamental violation of the relationship between the executive and the criminal justice system.

He has become de facto national commissioner of police and no one has batted an eyelid.

There should be a bulwark between the executive and the police, between politics and the justice system. But the ANC has done away with that too.

Mbaloser should have exactly nothing to do with how the police operate. His is exclusively an oversight and policy role. Strategy and tactics are not his domain.

There can be no more dangerous erosion in a constitutional democracy.

If the minister can directly tell police who to arrest and how to conduct themselves, then in effect you have a police force answering directly to a political party.

And that is a recipe for deep and profound problems. Yet, remarkably, Mbaloser has carried out this coup without any opposition.

Mind you, it is a situation no more or less ridiculous than a minister of police who publicly advocates torture.

As the constitutional prescripts that define the South African state slowly evaporate into the ether, a series of tin-pot dictators in key positions is all that remains. All power becomes invested in them.

There is another movie that captures this: Judge Dredd. In a post-apocalyptic world, overrun by anarchy, the judges are the last line of defence.

Able to fight, investigate, prosecute and sentence any criminal, the entire justice system is vested in them.

“I am the law,” says Judge Dredd, the main protagonist.

So says Mbaloser too. He is a product of a failing state, a dysfunctional and desperate police service and a leadership vacuum that is starting to have profound consequences for how we interpret and uphold the rule of law.

Good policing has given way to populism as the ANC’s collapse makes it impossible to pursue excellence, leaving brute force as the last resort.

It makes sense, then, that it is Mbaloser who has adopted the role of sheriff.

There is no more apposite product of that failure than him.

Not so much Judge Dredd as Judge Dreadful.

Only, it’s not a game or movie. The clown is now playing to a well-armed audience. There is no more dangerous kind of fool than one with power.

 

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