Cape Town - Top former and current Cape Town police, backed by the police union Sapu, have denounced a recommendation by the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry that police members stationed in the crime-ridden township be trained to speak Xhosa.
In its final report on the actions of the three police stations in Khayelitsha, the commission recommended that all police members who did not speak Xhosa be taught the language, while the police management must actively seek to ensure that new members placed in the township were able to speak it.
While Sapu conceded that the language barrier had an impact on policing in the area, it was less than pleased with the recommendation that all staff unable to speak Xhosa be trained to do so.
Sapu’s Western Cape chairman, Joseph Manuel, said the recommendation was a practical one, but asking old policemen stationed there to learn a new language was outrageous. “It will be an impossible recommendation to achieve and will not work.”
The union, which represents police officials across the racial spectrum, said that while the language barrier had always been a concern, forcing people to learn a language was not the way to go.
“In the end you will have to place Afrikaans-speaking police officials in predominantly Afrikaans areas. But how would one manage this if there are 11 official languages in the country? Doing this all over will be a mammoth task and it will hamper integration,” Manuel said.
He also pointed out that there was not a single community in Cape Town where people spoke only one language.
A top Cape Town policeman who declined to be named said that in principle the idea was fine, provided areas were still divided up in terms of the Group Areas Act, which they were not any more.
“If it is to be accepted in principle, it should then also be applied in all provinces. What happens if the demographics of an area change? For instance in Strandfontein many people who live there speak Xhosa or Sotho. And there are also many Somalians, Chinese or Nigerians, who are South African citizens, living in different parts of our country. Do we then have to accommodate their languages as well?”
The policeman said appointments such as that of Major-General Johan Brand, who previously headed the Mitchells Plain station and was now Khayelitsha cluster commander, were made on the basis of their competence as managers, not on the basis of their race or the language.
“The official language in policing and the criminal justice system is English. Does the language issue become a competency requirement for employment into a position? If so, then it’s wrong.”
He said police were governed by the country’s equity legislation, which required that staff of different demographics should be replicated at all levels of the organisation nationally. This referred to population demographics, not language.
Former Western Cape police superintendent Wikus Holtzhausen said forcing another language down the throats of police officials would not help bring down crime, but would alienate dedicated police officials.
“Teaching police officials to speak another language does not teach them to understand the culture or the people. You have to understand the culture and the people and their ways. How long will it take these police officials to learn a difficult language like Xhosa? Not all of us are able to learn a new language.”
Holtzhausen proposed instead that police recruit and train leaders from the communities to become police officers.
Policing experts conceded that language played a major role, and said the recommendations should be taken seriously, but practical ways to implement it would have to be found.
Policing expert Andrew Faull, who testified at the commission via video conferencing, said language was a tricky area and he did not think the police could adopt a blanket policy.
“I don’t think we can expect chaps to learn new languages – though we should provide them with the opportunity.”
Faull said places like Cape Town central were more tricky, as police were dealing with a great range of people and languages.
Guy Lamb, director of UCT’s safety and violence initiative, who also testified before the commission, said where practically possible police should take the language recommendation seriously, especially in crime hot spot areas.
“The important thing in Khayelitsha is that there have been specific complaints about not having Xhosa-speaking staff to deal with complaints from the public. Khayelitsha is a priority crime area and there needs to be language representation.”
Axolile Notywala, a Khayelitsha resident and member of the Social Justice Coalition, said most Khayelitsha residents were Xhosa speakers and so it would be more effective if police officers stationed there spoke the same language.
“Sometimes you find that there is a language barrier when people go to report cases at the police station. Some people cannot write nor speak English. We need police officers who will be able to assist those people.”