Do you know when a country lost its soul? It is what happens when we start cheering murder! Yes, when the police execute someone in cold blood, even after a shootout, it is murder in law and for damn good reason. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” said Plato in The Republic and you may well take good note of this: “Who will guard the guards themselves?” When first written, not by Plato, but by Juvenal, it had to do with ensuring marital fidelity which was a concern then (as it is now). You know about Roman Orgies? Yeah, not conducive to marriage fidelity now and prostitution, male and female, was an integral part of the Roman Empire. However, the phrase came to be known as a warning against abuse of power.
I was a policeman for six years during the middle eighties and wrote extensively about my experiences in the Mean Streets Police Series (1050 pages, I counted the other night – I must have been bored) and I know about police killings. Since then we found out in great detail how the evil system of Apartheid turned good and honourable men into something they should never have become. One tried to defend his actions by stating he “fought fire with fire” and hence extra-judicial killings are allowed. Listen to me, you are wrong and plainly stupid to think that the courts and legal justice system should be overridden for any reason, who the hell are you? The Judge, Jury and Executioner?
Let us go back into history and see what happens when warnings are ignored. Let me quote US Civil War General William T Sherman to you in a conversation he had with Professor David F. Boyd at the Louisiana State Seminary (24 December 1860) – note this is before the US Civil War started:
“You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
We have today in court four policemen accused of executing a wounded suspect they should have arrested. Yes, the bastard shot at them first (I say this from what I read in the news reports) and probably deserves death, but not like this. No, it can never be right and we should never go that way again! I know your arguments, I supported them once myself, and I will quote from my book “Mean Streets – Life in the Apartheid Police (Book 2) The Mean Streets, p 280
“Many times we swore we will kill the criminal next time because the courts did not deal with them in the way we thought it should. I believe this is a common view of any frustrated policeman and frequently only his inbuilt discipline will prevent such acts. This went one step further when the Security Police approached me to join a Unit which specialised in the “terminating of terrorists” through a commissioned officer I trusted. I seriously considered it for I liked the idea of killing terrorists and could morally justify it by saying “Well, let us say we have a source in place and if we arrest the terrorist he will be blown. But if we kill the terrorist, everyone is happy and the source safe to prevent more attacks.” Such ideas, at the time, made sense to me and I felt quite proud that the captain spoke to me about my feeling on the subject. I heard vague rumours about the unit and, of course, knew of his former commander who joined the ANC in London telling the whole world about the SAP "hit squads."
The SAP generals explained to us that he talked rubbish since he suffered brain damage being a known diabetic. In spite of this very eloquent explanation we knew that terrorists may be killed after arrest and tacitly approved for the reasons mentioned above. I will never blame the policemen who pulled the trigger - the Nationalists who gave the order are the ones to blame. Those policemen were only the instruments of their abuse but we spoke about it before in Book 1.
I can tell you such thoughts are very dangerous. Luckily a family member persuaded me not to volunteer by telling me the war is about over and Mr Mandela will be released soon. I am grateful to him today even if I thought then he must be mad and a long haired liberal saying such things. But he was right! I also had a long argument with my dad about this when I said: “Dad, why not just kill them and save the court, society and prisons a lot of distress.” Unlike the Chaplains, he did not only shake his head in disbelief, but gave me a long lecture on natural justice and that it would be morally wrong. “Moreover, such action is murder in real life. Did I join the SAP to commit cold blooded murder? Who decides on who lives and dies? No, arrest them and bring them to the court to deal with and be grateful you don’t judge them for they have good reasons for acting the way they do.”
I also note we like it when a criminal is shot dead by the angry house owner (I myself jeer at that, it is thoroughly deserved) but note, this is not right. We should not love death. We should get this country to a place where such things are shocking and not something to be pleased about. Obviously, the failure is not with us - it is with leadership. How do we explain to uitlanders (Afrikaans, foreigners) that we now have more riots than in Apartheid? Or that we cheer happily when the police execute a criminal? Stop, and think, and pack your bags but do not love death – is not normal. Do not walk this road again!
Koos Kotze is a former member of the South African Police Force. He served between 1985 and 1991 primarily as a sergeant in the Pretoria Flying Squad. After leaving the Police Force he obtained the law degrees B Iuris & LLB at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and was a practicing commercial law attorney for eight years. He also wrote several books on business, law, counter terrorism and security issues. He is a widower and lives in Bloemfontein, South Africa.