Pocket dynamite

By Liz Clarke and Ayanda Mhlongo

If nobody had ever heard of Susan Shabangu before, that situation changed when her exhortation to police to "kill the bastards", referring to criminals, reverberated, not only around the country, but sent shock waves around the world.

London's Daily Mail reported in the aftermath: "Mrs Shabangu's outburst won a standing ovation from her audience in the capital Pretoria, while opposition parties called on President Thabo Mbeki to sack her."

Associated Press commented that while there was a growing anger in South Africa about rampant crime, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) needed to ask Shabangu if her utterances were consistent with her sworn oath of office.

So what was so dreadful about what she had to say?

Basically that by challenging the South African constitution that criminals must be kept safe and her now famous retort: "I say no, no, no" she was, in effect, advocating a brand-new set of rules that appears to see indiscriminate killing as central to fighting crime.

As one international observer stated: "Shabangu is changing the men in blue to the men in red."

The question everybody asked after her explosive broadside was: did she shoot from the hip to make political headlines, or did she truly represent the heartfelt sentiments of every South African who is saying enough is enough?

The first thing we need to know is that Shabangu is no swashbuckling, gung-ho maverick. In fact, if you saw her strolling down the street, she would come across as a small, unassuming woman, a mother, dutiful wife maybe, who was on her way to the corner shop to get milk and bread.

But in her case, looks are blisteringly misleading. Those who have had dealings with her, particularly police officers tasked with fighting crime at grassroots level, say she is "a pocket dynamite".

She has also never been one, says a police colleague, to just sit in a fancy office and work from behind a desk.

In December last year, the Daily News team got first-hand insight into how Shabangu thinks and operates during a police raid on the notorious and dangerous Point area in Durban.

Unlike many officials, she was on that occasion more than prepared to work through the night and to enter parts of the crime-ridden Point precinct that many would never dream of visiting.

The heavy rain and cold weather did nothing to deter her and while many believed the raid would be cancelled, she would have none of it and ordered that it continue.

Shabangu, clad in a bulletproof vest, said that her "get on with the job" approach was aimed at demonstrating to criminals and the law-abiding public that police would take "no nonsense".

Her sentiments were quite clear even then.

She was adamant that under no circumstances would an area be regarded as a no-go zone by the police.

Like a militant Pied Piper, she lead hordes of police officers from different units around the province, moving her police troops from shebeens to taverns and then on to dilapidated buildings known to house drug lords, prostitutes and gangs.

One of those officers on duty recalled: "Despite her diminutive stature, she cut an impressive figure of authority mingling with those who come face to face with the worst criminal elements on a daily basis and asking some very pertinent questions."

During the walks she also seized the opportunity to talk to the "men in blue" and try to understand first-hand what they experienced during the execution of their duties.

On that stint of duty, Shabangu was described by police as being "remarkable" and "an inspiration", not standing back, but confronting suspects personally.

People who met with her also shared their perspectives on crime and aired their feelings on the police and how they were dealing with crime.

Observers said Shabangu's maternal instinct emerged as she stopped to chat with teenagers who were walking the streets at that late hour.

"She expressed her concern when talking with the street children and other young people she encountered, insisting that the police ensure they were removed from their risky environment and taken to safe houses," said an officer.

Daily News reporter Ayanda Mhlongo, who accompanied her, said: "When I left the scene at 2am to file copy, she was showing no signs of flagging.

Susan Shabangu had a job to do and she was not going to relent until she had completed it."

Claims made by critics that Shabangu was "playing to the gallery" don't fit with her obvious commitment to the police.

Although the "kill the bastards" outburst has eclipsed anything else she has done or said, it is known that one of her objectives has been to find the source of crime and deal with it.

Columnists and those close to her describe her as a very canny and clever politician and she made a statement that clearly echoed her frustrations at the inability to control rampant crime and the effects it is having on the country which she says "she loves more than words can say".

Could it have been her way of supporting the police, which in every sense has become a battered and criticised regiment? Was this her way of saying to the victims: "We know what you are going through and we are trying our best to put it right"?

It was an off-the-wall way of doing business and, while ANC president Jacob Zuma strategically stepped away from outright criticism of her stance, it remains to be seen what the next chapter in this strange South African drama will be.

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