Police Minister Bheki Cele has denied he ever made any illegal statements that might have encouraged police abuse during the Covid-19 lockdown. He was responding to a court judgment issued last week that was highly critical of the authorities’ enforcement of regulations.
“The minister of police has not said any illegal statements. This minister of police is the product of the struggles here for human rights,” said Police Minister Bheki Cele during a press briefing on Friday.
In a judgment on the Collins Khosa case, the North Gauteng High Court last week criticised Cele, along with Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, for making irresponsible comments during the Covid-19 lockdown.
In April, Cele warned that SAPS members would confiscate any alcohol being sold during the lockdown and “destroy the infrastructure where the liquor is sold”, which SAPS is not entitled to do. Judge Hans Fabricius said the comments were unlawful if literal, and “extremely irresponsible” if figurative.
On Friday, Cele said that because of his involvement in the fight for liberation, he would not make unlawful comments. While the minister encouraged the public to report allegations of police abuse to investigative bodies, he said officers know the law.
“Indeed, we have received the increase about police brutality or the overhand of the police doing their job. Fortunately, the South African police forever know what they are supposed to do,” he said.
The court ordered the police and SANDF to draft a code of conduct to govern their activities during the lockdown, which Cele said would be signed on Friday 22 May. The minister said the state would abide by the majority of orders handed down by the court, but would lodge an appeal.
Without going into detail, Cele said there were “one or two areas” where the police were not “keen on compliance”.
Khosa family lawyer Wikus Steyl told Daily Maverick that the state raised a number of issues, and was most concerned with having to file its reports to the court on investigations into Khosa’s death, and other allegations of abuse, by 4 June 2020.
“We have never called the police to be brutal and get outside the law because police themselves, you’ll find that they’re under attack and then have to defend themselves there,” said Cele.
The police minister said officers often operate in dangerous environments, but know the proportionality of force they’re allowed to use. He pointed out that most cases lodged with watchdog IPID are still being investigated.
Cele said 611 SAPS members have tested positive for Covid-19. The majority are in Western Cape, with 441 positive cases, followed by Eastern Cape with 47.
Almost 230,000 people have been charged with violating the regulations during the lockdown, which came into effect eight weeks ago. Cele didn’t break down the leading contraventions in numbers, but they include liquor and cigarette-related offences, illegal gatherings and the failure to confine oneself to a place of residence.
The police minister said the provinces with the highest number of charges reflect the spread of Covid-19. Most people were charged in Western Cape, followed by Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
“Accordingly, the arrested persons were either issued with fines or released with warning, while some are out on bail and those cases relating to more serious offences are before the respective courts in the country,” said Cele.
There has reportedly been a widespread rise in the illicit trade of alcohol and tobacco products during the lockdown, and Cele said the SANDF confiscated R2.5-million worth of contraband at the borders in March and April.
There was a significant year-on-year decline in serious and violent crime in April, and Cele said it continued in May.
From 29 March to 21 May 2019, compared to the same period in 2020, reported murders declined 63.9%, rape 82.8%, attempted murder 56% and assault with the intention to cause grievous bodily harm 80.4%.
There have been reports that calls to gender-based violence (GBV) hotlines increased dramatically during the lockdown, but those haven’t necessarily been reflected in reported cases.
Domestic violence, including sexual assault, rape, the pointing of a firearm, murder, attempted murder and other crimes against women, declined 68.4% year-on-year.
“The numbers are in reference to reported cases. Therefore, there is a possibility that there could be victims at home who have not or cannot report to the police for a different reason,” said Cele. DM