2007-12-14 : Opinion


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2007-12-14 : Opinion

Postby GOSA » Wed, 2008-01-09 13:23


14 Dec 2007

Many South Africans, weary of violent crime, will have applauded
the news that 11 would-be cash van hijackers were shot dead by
police in a single incident in Limpopo this week. An official
spokesperson described it as "splendid work".

This is rough justice in action. The public rightly expects a
tough response from the police against those who set off with
criminal intent brandishing lethal weapons and threatening lives
and possessions. Many people might go further and see in such
punitive reaction an informal version of the capital punishment
they support, but which is disallowed by the national

However, there is ample reason to pause and reflect. The scale of
casualties is akin to low-level war. When police and criminals
exchange fire so freely, the chances are high that innocent
passers-by will be caught in the middle. In the case of the recent
incident, it is relevant to ask why one fleeing suspect half-a-
kilometre away in a mealie field was killed rather than disabled.

Shoot-outs are inevitable in some circumstances, but could become
the easy option. A great deal of time, paperwork and cost is saved
when the police deal with a corpse rather than an alleged
criminal. But this is a Wild West scenario. The task of the police
is to maintain law and order, a process more sophisticated than a
simple body count. What, for instance, are the chances of
detective work when potential informants are in the mortuary?

If firefights become a popular method of controlling crime, there
is the danger that this could encourage nocturnal police
vigilantism. This was last seen in South Africa in the years of
officially inspired lawlessness during the state of emergency. The
possibility of a rerun, albeit under different political
circumstances, is grim indeed.

Satisfaction can be derived from the bravery and success of the
police in thwarting another major robbery. But the government and
people of South Africa must never lose sight of the fact that
justice, not retribution, is the hallmark of a civilised society.
This is measured in terms of an efficient and fair judicial
system; not pictures of bodies in the media.
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