Getting our crime crisis under control means starting at the top

The crime situation in South Africa has deteriorated way beyond the unacceptable. It is catastrophic! The country is still recognised as the "rape capital of the world". During the two years 2019 – 2020, altogether 42, 289 women and girls were reportedly raped. According to police records, an average of 116 rapes per day were officially reported. As if that was not enough, in the same period 21, 325 murders occurred, meaning on average 58 people were murdered daily.

Many instances of rape are not reported, so the actual situation is even worse than the recorded figures reflect. Not reporting is caused by the shame felt by the victim and the long drawn out prosecution process which regrettably exacts a psychological toll on top of the physical trauma.

Statistics pertaining to other serious crimes such as robberies and corruption-related cases depict a gruesome overall crime situation.

It is a plausible hypothesis that the crime wave is fuelled by the pandemic of corruption. Personnel in the public sector and their cronies have been perpetrating justiciable criminal acts with relative impunity. Witness the ongoing blatant looting and pillaging of state resources at taxpayers' expense, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. As I have contended often in the past, this state of affairs sends a signal that it may not after all be entirely morally despicable to commit a crime, because many people in high places 'do it' and get away with it.

No wonder there is a public perception that crime has become institutionalised.

Elected representatives and bureaucrats in conjunction with some well-connected Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) beneficiaries and their rent-seeking collaborators have contributed to the corruption aspect of the crime wave. In a frenzied greed to access state resources, these parties have become convenient bedfellows as their collaboration has seen them garner extremely lucrative financial rewards via state tenders and other government personnel manoeuvrings. All this at the hapless taxpayer's expense.

With all due respect to Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, whose jurisprudential excellence has become obvious to all who follow the proceedings of the commission which bears his name, the battle against corruption and general crime still seems insurmountable.

For quite a while some wondered whether the work of the commission would lead to the actual prosecution of those implicated in corruption. Would it prove to be no more than an expensive/costly cathartic exercise?

But after much sustained public pressure, the President has extended the brief of the commission to include the referral of cases to prosecuting authorities. South Africans are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of justice being seen to be done without fear, favour or prejudice. It is important to demonstrate that no one is above the law. Miscreants, some of whom still occupy high public office, should face the full wrath of the law. The principle of equality before the law is fundamental. It lies at the very core of the concept of the rule of law.

This principle is also significant in the economic arena because investors wish to know whether a country on their radar upholds the rule of law. Is there protection of private property? Are contracts enforceable? These are questions which loom large in the minds of investors.

These considerations underscore the importance of the Zondo Commission and the ongoing work of the National Prosecuting Authority and the Special Investigating Unit. However, it should not be a prerogative of the President to decide who should be investigated as that scenario lends itself to potential abuse of power and political interference in the investigative and subsequent judicial processes. The criminal investigative arm of government should be guaranteed the unfettered freedom to execute its mandate.

In this regard it is instructive to consider the example of Singapore, a country which has had astounding success in combatting crime and corruption.  Once an outpost of the British empire and a place defined by rampant corruption, the post-independence government embarked on a resolute and decisive drive to stamp out criminal activities among those in high places.  While at the helm of government, Lee Kuan Yew (founding Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990), addressing the "Africa Leadership Forum" in 1993, summed up the approach which informed the campaign that effectively obliterated corruption in his country. He stated,

"Once a political system has been corrupted right from the very top leaders to the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy, the problem is very complicated. The cleansing and disinfecting has to start from the top and go downwards in a thorough and systematic way. It is a long and laborious process that can be carried out only by a very strong group of leaders with the strength and moral authority derived from unquestioned integrity."

According to the Corruption Perception Index of January 2021 (published by Amnesty International), the anticorruption initiatives set in motion by Lee Kuan Yew's government at his behest, have culminated in Singapore being one of the 6 least corrupt countries in the world. The other 5 least corrupt countries are Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland. This is the late Lee Kuan Yew's remarkable legacy. It is quite commendable that successive administrations have continued to pursue his mission.

Closer to
home, Angola is a rising star among nations seeking to combat corruption. It is a case to be emulated by the rest of Africa, where, by far, the majority of the countries are still mired in serious corruption.

Under the leadership of President Joao Lourenco, this past August 2020, the revamped and efficient justice system of the country has seen Jose Filomeno dos Santos, son of former President Eduardo dos Santos, sentenced to five years in prison for fraud, money laundering and influence peddling to the tune of over $500 million.
Africa Report further details that alongside Dos Santos, co-defendant (former governor of the National Bank of Angola) Valter Felipe da Silva was sentenced to eight years in prison. Meanwhile, the richest woman on the African continent, former president Dos Santos's daughter, dollar billionaire Isabel dos Santos, is in hot water. Her assets were frozen in February 2020 pending investigations and a probable criminal trial. To add more to her woes, the Portuguese government has seized her business and other assets in Portugal.

Angola is indeed a country to be watched. It is energetically marketing itself as a globally competitive investment destination, while simultaneously opening up the domestic economic environment. President Lourenco is currently institutionalising a culture of the rule of law and this will provide a solid bedrock for market-oriented policies that would set the country on an upward trajectory of economic growth. It is to be hoped that the Covid threat does not seriously negate/prejudice that country's socioeconomic ambitions.

It is quite clear that when career criminals see people in high places acting as though they are above the law and blatantly pursuing criminal activities without repercussions, they conclude that their own conduct is acceptable. Regrettably, many impressionable youths perceive such people as role models. Thus, the crime situation is further exacerbated.

And so, career criminals continue to rob, steal, break into people's houses, rape, murder, and loot other people's property with reckless abandon.

What will be President Cyril Ramaphosa's legacy on the corruption-fighting front? The jury is still out!

This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 21 February 2021.

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