Good bad news

Barry Bearak, who shares duties with his wife, Celia Dugger, as co-bureau chief of the New York Times in Johannesburg, is one of the best foreign correspondents in the business. He won a Pulitzer in 2002 for what the prize committee called his “deeply affecting and illuminating coverage of daily life” in Afghanistan. Last year he shared a Polk award with Dugger for their courageous coverage of Zimbabwe, where he was arrested for committing journalism.

The qualities that earned him both prizes are very much in evidence in a piece the Times published on June 29 describing vigilante justice in Diepsloot. By his own tally, he spent three weeks in the community between Johannesburg and Pretoria to examine how crime affects South Africa’s poor and how some are responding by taking the law into their own hands.

What he encountered is disturbing. It is also carefully documented. To get the full effect, you need to visit the Times website via a tolerably fast Internet connection. There you will find supporting video and photographs plus a sound clip, courtesy of SABC, of President Jacob Zuma discussing the role of the public in fighting crime.

The article opens with two badly beaten robbery suspects about to be doused with petrol and set alight by a mob. In a scene that harks back to Archbishop Desmond Tutu intervening to stop a necklacing, they are saved by a brave local politician who pleads with the crowd to leave things to the police. The latter at length arrive. A police inspector is quoted as shouting at crowd in exasperation: “Get back or I’m leaving this place and never helping you people again. I hate Diepsloot.”

The feeling seems mutual. “People here often dismiss the police as bunglers at best and crooks at worst,” Bearak writes, “In Diepsloot, an arrest is usually seen as a way to gain leverage needed to exact a bribe.” The local police superintendent is paraphrased as agreeing that some of his officers are corrupt but that “a larger share of the venality rest(s) with prosecutors and the courts”.

Government obviously wants to see the gap between communities and police closed. But Bearak raises a troubling question: are its words and policies having the opposite effect?  Here is a transcript of the Zuma sound clip on the Times website:

“Not only the police, but all of us must play a role. That is why at Polokwane we took a decision to establish street committees and village committees as part of the forces to fight crime. We need the communities to be given that possibility. If they get hold of a criminal, they must not be blamed to have taken the law into their own hands because they only do so because they know the criminals, the police would not be arresting the criminals, instead they must be supported in such actions, because if the police want to get the support of the communities, they must work together with the communities in dealing with the criminals.”

This is subject to several interpretations. The accompanying caption, not Bearak’s doing, picks the direst possible: “South African President Jacob Zuma advocates for vigilante justice at Bakenberg Stadium in Limpopo province.” Is that fair a reading? If you were to ask anyone in government whether community policing was supposed to be synonymous with the lynch mob, the answer would be a resounding no.  It’s not clear that Bearak asked.

That aside, my personal view is that by his enterprising reporting he has done South Africa a service.  He has shined a spotlight where it deserves to be shone, and, I would hope, has contributed to a very necessary conversation – one in which there will be opportunities to talk also about the things we are doing right.

As for the impact the article may have on South Africa’s reputation, it is no secret that like most rapidly urbanizing emerging economies, we face daunting headwinds in the law enforcement department.  It’s not pretty, but it goes with the territory and serious people recognize that.  Put Bearak to work in any one of a score of countries with economies more or less equivalent to ours and I’d wager he’d find parallels, some even more horrific, to what he saw and heard in Diepsloot.

In assessing our commitment to the rule of law, what the world wants to see is how forthrightly we confront unpleasant facts.  In recent years, we were starting to get a name for sweeping things under carpets. That undermined confidence in us and damaged an essential element of our brand. How could we claim to be a country that found fresh, creative and pragmatic ways of cracking the toughest nuts if we were continually refusing to acknowledge that the nuts existed?

Happily, as Bearak and Dugger have amply reported, one of the many things we do well is elections.

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