As a child, Major-General Bala Naidoo admired police officers who looked resplendent in their uniforms and drove shiny cars.
This is what he wanted to do and the calling was strong. He left school in Standard 8 (Grade 6) and at 17 years old tried to enrol in the police force. The recruiting officer took one look at the scrawny teenager who weighed 52kg and decided he didn’t have what it would take to maintain law and order.
Naidoo worked on a sugar cane plantation, among other jobs, but he could not resist the calling.
Eventually, he entered the force, becoming a constable in the Railway Police unit whose task it was to patrol railway yards and Durban harbour. This was the beginning of a remarkable career that has spanned 41 years and has seen the once bright-eyed and young constable become a major-general in the provincial SAPS.
On December 31, Naidoo hangs up his hat, having spent two-thirds of his life pursuing the calling that has defined his existence.
As he prepares to leave, throngs of visitors line up at his office at the KZN police headquarters on Ordnance Road to wish him well.
Remarkably, for someone who has spent four decades in the force, Naidoo has fired his weapon only once – a warning shot into the air to persuade a suspect to stop running away.
Of all the anecdotes Naidoo has to share about his career, this one best describes the veteran cop who colleagues describe as tenacious, diplomatic and one of the hardest workers they have ever known.
“When I started I was 18 years and 3 months old. In those days police were very much respected. I was the only policeman in my community and if you worked in government it was seen as an achievement. People would come to me when they saw me walking on the street and they would ask me for my help.”
In 1986, the Railway Police merged with the general police force and the following year Naidoo faced a dilemma as he had been requested to transfer to head up the stock theft unit in De Aar, Northern Cape.
Orders were orders but Naidoo was reluctant to leave KwaZulu-Natal.
“I saw a position advertised in the police communications department. I was fluent in English and Afrikaans and my Zulu was good so I applied.
And the rest is history – Naidoo has worked in police communications since 1987. The role would put him at the coal face with the media and the public. During the nineties and early 2000s, Naidoo became a household name.
In 2007, then National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi requested that Naidoo take up the post of station commissioner of the Durban Central police station.
The station was the biggest in the province in terms of resources and the population its officers served. It was the third-largest in the country.
But the station was in a mess. Too many officers were on sick leave, the public was outraged by the inefficient call response times and the apathy shown by police.
“There was a lack of control at the biggest police station in the province. Forth-three officers were booked off sick for an indefinite period of time, there was no follow-up to complaints and the community served by this station was frustrated at the inefficiency that was taking place.”
Undeterred, Naidoo surrounded himself with a strong team of senior police officers and set to work.
He could have gone in with a heavy hand, but this is not his style.
“We needed to understand why so many police officers were booked off sick. My approach was to understand the problems – family issues, problems with a specific commander or other job related conditions. In the end, we found that only four officers were really sick and the rest we were able to get back on duty.
“I believe that if you respect everyone – from the highest to the lowest ranking officer – you can get co-operation. Everyone has a role to fulfil in the organisation and you must understand the human being to obtain co-operation. Sometimes, you have to be decisive or harsh and sometimes you have to be diplomatic.”
Naidoo believes it is important for a police officer to be also a humanist.
At Durban Central he found that shoplifters with infants were being placed in cells with 600 people.
“There was opposition when I suggested that they be given a warning to appear in court and released, but children should never be kept in the cells because their parents have committed an offence.
“Sometimes, if it was late at night, a police car would take the mothers and their children home. If you have a human touch you can still be a police officer. It is important to have this balance.”
The 1990s saw the unbanning of the ANC and some of the worst incidents of inter-party violence the province has ever seen.
Naidoo was at the forefront of communications.
“Violence monitors and political parties were looking for a scapegoat and they found one in the form of the police. They accused us of turning a blind eye to the Inkatha/ANC violence or, on some occasions, of being part of the killings.
“Instead of reacting negatively to the criticism, we started to work closely with the parties and they started to trust us.”
As his last wish, Naidoo said he wants to see the role of the SAPS changing from a job to a profession.
“If I had to go back to when I was deciding on a career, I would definitely choose this career again.”
Naidoo is looking forward to his retirement and will now pour his energy into the KZN Tamil Federation – an organisation he has had links with for decades.
“As I prepare to leave, I know there are many, many people in the SAPS who will continue to serve this organisation with dedication and take this country forward.”
● Chetty is Independent Media’s regional political editor