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South Africa recently concluded its inaugural Integrity Idol campaign, organised and driven by Accountability Lab – and the resounding winner was Captain Vinny Pillay, a career police officer at the Umhlali Police Station on KwaZulu-Natal’s (KZN) north coast.

Umhlali falls into the coastal district municipality of iLembe – the smallest of KZN’s district municipalities – and the KwaDukuza local municipality. The farming community of Umhlali (named after the indigenous Monkey Orange tree, which grows abundantly on the banks of the Umhlali River) is 80% rural, and was established in 1850. Located about 50km north of Durban, it lies in the heart of sugar cane country.

Like much of the country, this rather remote location is afflicted by socio-economic problems such as alcohol and drug abuse. According to the OpenUp data portal, Umhlali police station had 624 drug-related crime reports in 2016/2017 – the highest it has been in recent years. On the other hand, just 58 incidences of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol were recorded in 2016-2017, compared to 170 in the period before.

Pillay is undaunted by these challenges – in fact, he thrives on them. “From childhood I always wanted to help the community. I could have been a social worker but I think a policeman does everything – you don’t have to specifically be a social worker.”

He was inspired by the example of his brother, who was also a police officer. “I used to see the way my brother worked, and I wanted to be a policeman too.”

This was entirely the right career decision, Pillay says. “I’ve enjoyed every minute – I’ve never ever had any regrets. With my job, I can’t wait to be at work, whether I’m sick or not.”

Rising above the rot

The South African Police Service (Saps) has not enjoyed a favourable reputation in recent years. Corruption in Saps is rife, said Robert McBride, executive director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, in Parliament in March: “The biggest threat to national security is corruption in Saps.” Meanwhile, convictions are few and far between – the case of former Western Cape commissioner Arno Lamoer, found guilty of fraud and corruption, is the first such conviction in that province since 2012.

But Pillay has not found it difficult to stay on the straight path. “It’s all about attitude and commitment, and doing your best in whatever path you’ve chosen in life.”

He is motivated by his desire to help and build his community. “I get up every morning and stay positive and just ask God to help me to help my community. I’m much more of a community person. I’m a policeman but I do all sorts of things, such as attending to complaints.”

In fact, Pillay adds, most of the community phones him before they phone the charge office. “I get calls all day and night, even weekends. Perhaps there is an understanding that I will listen to the story and direct them to the best possible place for help. Some policemen would never even want to listen to people complain but I’m the one who can listen and guide you on what you need to do, no matter what problem you have.”

Every day is a full day, he reiterates. “I don’t have specific working hours of coming home at 4.30pm and starting at 7 in the morning – that doesn’t work for me! I can’t remember when I last started work at that hour.”

He can also be seen out and about collecting supplies for the under-privileged in his area, and he’s often found at schools where he gives talks and programmes on drug and alcohol abuse.

To add to his jam-packed days, Pillay also is concerned with the current spate of protest action in the area. “I start every morning at 4 or 4.30 am to go and assess the situation and see what’s going on.”

None of this would be possible without the support of his family and community, he says. “I owe it all to my wife and son. They know and understand that it’s my calling to be a policeman. If the community reaches out to me there’s no way I can deny them – I will go out there and assist them. I try to spend my weekends with my family but they understand that if needs be I have to go and do what’s expected of me.”

Example to others

Pillay believes that individuals are perfectly able to make a difference in the fight against crime and corruption. “There’s only one line, and that’s the straight line. You must always be able to do the right thing when people are not watching. You don’t have to get praise for anything, it’s your job and it’s expected of you. It’s not that you have to collect something in return.”

He never misses an opportunity to share this philosophy. “I often chat to my people at the station, and tell them that they get a salary so there’s no reason for them to take anything extra from people, unless it’s something for the trauma centre, for example.”

Pillay also runs the trauma centre at Umhlali station, an initiative that he started. In this, he cites the communities of Salt Rock and Ballito as being tremendously supportive, for instance in helping to ensure that the centre is always stocked with the necessities.

In terms of future plans, Pillay plans to start an initiative to help the elderly in his community, as well as develop a recreational centre for the youth, where they can spend productive time away from drugs and alcohol. “They can spend afternoons and weekends with movies, games, a library, and so on. I’ve already approached the KwaDukuza municipality, but although I don’t have funding at the moment, my plans will get under way slowly.”

He intends to get together with his fellow Integrity Idol SA finalists and brainstorm ways in which “we will change the entire country. We’ve been nominated, we now have a duty to carry that forward.”

The other finalists

Vinny Pillay was up against stiff competition – but from the start he had the whole-hearted support of his community and took an early lead which he never relinquished.

Mirja Delport, a doctor at the Oudtshoorn District Hospital, Western Cape, grew up experiencing the challenges within public healthcare. “For me, integrity is not letting one of my patients slip through the cracks in what is a difficult and overburdened environment.”

Deon Easu and Jocelin Flank were nominated as a team. They are fire fighters and EMS responders from Johannesburg, Gauteng. Together with colleagues they initiated the South African Fire Youth Development Academy to train young people to become fully-fledged fighters.

Natascha Meisler is an educator at PT Sanders Combined School in Trompsburg, Free State, and an advocate for students with learning disabilities. “I have been bullied for advocating for the needs of my students but continue to serve with Integrity. Our learners keep myself and my colleagues going.”

Elizabeth Mkhondo is a nurse at Stanza Bopape Clinic, Mamelodi East in Tshwane, Gauteng, working in the centre’s TB Unit. “As a nurse, integrity for me has always been about making a real difference in my community in very difficult resource circumstances. It is about extending care to all my patients.”