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Johannesburg - For the price of a loaf of bread, a Joburg metro police officer allows a motorist to escape sanction for breaking the law.
But when she accepted that R10 note, she didn’t know that 100m away from her – hiding behind a wall – was a team from The Star on a mission to document police corruption.
She wasn’t the only law enforcement officer caught red-handed. Over a period of several weeks, the team didn’t observe only her, but saw SAPS members solicit and receive bribes as they manned roadblocks on Durban Deep Road, between Bramfischerville and Matholesville, in the greater Roodepoort area.
The officers manning these roadblocks, according to Major-General Oswald Reddy, had been drawn from across the Honeydew policing cluster to conduct operations in the area. And the officers appear to have got away with their crimes.
A special undercover operation to catch them in the act failed.
The Star was asked by Reddy, the Honeydew cluster commander, to hold off on publishing the story so that his officers could arrest the corrupt officers in a sting operation.
On New Year’s Eve, SAPS anti-corruption personnel travelling in a decoy Kombi drove through a roadblock manned by the suspected policemen several times, hoping to be stopped.
But the suspects, according to Reddy, did not stop the Kombi, which had been kitted out with recording equipment, with the undercover officers carrying marked banknotes.
The sting couldn’t be repeated because the officers manning the roadblocks had to be returned to the police stations in the cluster from which they had been drawn.
“We really wanted to catch these officers in the act rather than suspend them, but unfortunately our operation wasn’t successful,” he said.
The Star’s investigation began after residents revealed how police officers were setting up roadblocks in a particular spot on Durban Deep Road, where they could regularly be seen accepting money from motorists.
It didn’t take long before The Star team, too, spotted money being exchanged between motorists and police.
On the afternoon of November 8 we watched three police vans, from the Randburg, Honeydew and Florida stations, arrive at the spot and set up a roadblock.
The stop-and-search lasted just 25 minutes, but during that time, The Star saw a policeman extend his hand into the cab of a red taxi and accept R20 from the driver.
The modus operandi we observed was for usually three police vans to arrive and park under the shade of trees.
Roadblocks lasted an average of about 20 minutes, during which time the officers would target older-model cars.
They are careful, said Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, because they fear a motorist or taxi passenger recording them on a camera or cellphone.
In another instance, which happened on November 15, The Star watched a driver hand over a piece of paper that appeared to be money to a policeman. The policeman never handed it back.
On two separate occasions, we watched officers pull out wads of cash and count them just after a roadblock was concluded.
The one incident happened on November 8, after the roadblock, when two officers were sitting in a Florida and a Diepsloot police station van. One of the officers pulled out a pile of tens and twenties and stretched across to the other van and handed over cash.
On November 15, a police officer, again at the conclusion of a roadblock, took loose notes out of his pocket, lent into a Roodepoort police station van and counted it.
As these roadblocks were being conducted across the road, illegal miners were mining for gold-bearing ore, which is a crime. No attempt was made to arrest these miners.
Metro police spokesman Chief Superintendent Wayne Minnaar condemned the incident of the metro police officer taking the R10 bribe.
“Instead of giving a bribe, motorists should phone the hotline number which is on all metro police vehicles,” he said.
The JMPD anti-corruption hotline number is 0800 203 712.
Hard to rank graft in police service
No one knows how widespread bribery is among the South African police.
“It is so hidden that it is difficult to find evidence on it,” said Gareth Newham, the head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies.
When Newham asked station commanders how rife they thought corruption was at their police stations, their estimates ranged from 5 percent to 60 percent.
“What we do believe is that it is more prevalent in the lower ranks, and less with (higher-ranking) officers as they are more focused and better paid,” said Newham.
Where there has been research into police corruption, it has examined the public’s perception of it.
A Statistics South Africa survey in 2012 revealed that 66 percentof South Africans thought that people working in the police service were the most corrupt.
The figure for Home Affairs officials was 38 percent.
Newham said the best way to fight corruption within the SAPS would be the re-establishment of a national anti-corruption unit, which was disbanded by former national commissioner Jackie Selebi .
Last year, the present national commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, said the SAPS planned to relaunch an anti-corruption unit aimed at fighting fraud and corruption within the police service.