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Durban - A prison sentence of 10 years was now the maximum punishment for people caught in possession of stolen property, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa warned in Durban on Wednesday.

Addressing thousands of Chatsworth residents during the official opening of a local police station, Mthethwa said a person who bought stolen property was no less a criminal than the one who sold it.

He said that previously, a person caught with stolen property was sentenced to 10 months, and the justice system had not always applied that sentence.

“If you buy from a thief, you are a thief,” he said.

The 10-year prison sentence would deal with people whose livelihood depended on stealing and selling, and those who made it their habit to buy stolen goods.

Mthethwa’s special adviser, Sbongile Mbotho, said the change came as a result of the Secondhand Goods Amendment Act of 2011.

The government has spent R131 million upgrading the 49-year-old Chatsworth police station. Mthethwa said that now he did not expect its 310 officers to complain about low morale.

He said they should go out and hunt down drug dealers who had made Chatsworth their haven. Most of the dealers operated in the area, but owned expensive homes in upmarket suburbs. “You (officers) must not assault drug dealers or any suspects. But when you apprehend them, hold them so tight that they don’t break loose.”

He said rape of women, children and the elderly was also a problem in the community.

Mthethwa said the department had identified about 1 000 “rotten” police officers nationally and 170 in KwaZulu-Natal.

They would be removed from the system and criminal charges would be laid against them. “

There is no half police, half criminals… we are in process of cleaning up the police service.”

Deputy Minister of Public Works Jeremy Cronin said renovation of the station was free of corruption. As a result, the work cost R105 million instead of R120m, which had been set aside during the tender process.

The department was dealing with 356 cases of corruption, including illegal leasing of government properties.

Regarding Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on President Jacob Zuma’s home in Nkandla, the department was waiting for the Special Investigation Unit to complete its probe.

“But we have already started to take action. Deputy director-general Sam Vukela has been dismissed and we are now considering laying criminal charges against him,” said Cronin.

The Mercury