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By Moepeng Valencia TalaneCW Voices

In its early days, around 11 years ago, Corruption Watch set out on a campaign that sought to help combat corruption in the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD). No More Tjo Tjo, as it was called, rallied members of the public to resist paying bribes to officers when stopped for traffic law violations or routine checks. Officers too were meant to be dissuaded, through the campaign, from soliciting bribes and conducting themselves in an unprofessional manner when dealing with civilians.

The campaign was a follow-up to a research report that the organisation had released in April 2012, documenting a worrying culture of corruption that had become so common in the city’s law enforcement sector that many of the people surveyed had long become desensitised to taking part in it.  

The report not only noted a Statistics SA survey that said over 150 000 motorists were asked for a bribe by metro police officers in Johannesburg annually, but that the scale of the problem is of such a nature that it is possible that the majority (more than 50%) of JMPD members were involved in corruption. This meant that there were unlikely to be any JMPD members who could not identify, by name, several of their colleagues who were involved in bribery; even though they may not be corrupt themselves.

Good recommendations not taken seriously

The recommendations contained in the report would become part of the No More Tjo Tjo messaging on public education pamphlets. It found, among other things, that JMPD officers commonly flouted the basic requirement to wear name tags while on duty, making it easier for the corrupt ones to avoid being identified and therefore being held accountable for their actions.

“The issue of ensuring that JMPD members are identifiable at all times when they are on duty should be seen as a non-negotiable issue. Members of the public should not be required to cooperate with members of the JMPD who are not themselves clearly identifiable by name. Steps should also be taken to better encourage the reporting of corruption,” the report noted.

On this and other points, it recommended that:

  • JMPD members must be identifiable by name to members of the public. They must wear visible identification at all times.
  • There should be random inspections by plain-clothes personnel to check that on-duty JMPD members are wearing visible identification.
  • Members of the public should be encouraged to report incidents where they were stopped by JMPD members who could not be identified regardless of whether the officers in question attempted to engage in acts of corruption.
  • Vehicle tracking technology should be used to monitor the location of JMPD members and to identify groups of JMPD members in the field whose members are not wearing identification or are involved in corruption.
  • Disciplinary steps should be taken against members who do not wear identification without good reason. Failure to wear identification when on duty should constitute grounds for summary dismissal.

The reception to the report and its findings and recommendations by the JMPD was not adversarial, but 10 years on one cannot say the likelihood of being asked for “cool drink” by a JMPD official has diminished because CW’s recommendations were taken seriously and actioned. If anything, the levels of public sensitivity towards bribery and extortion have dropped significantly.

JMPD finally acts against corruption

When the City of Johannesburg announced two weeks ago that its metro police officers would start donning body cameras while on the field, the news was met with more scepticism than enthusiasm on social media. Acting chief of the department Angie Mokasi told eNCA in a recent interview that: “We are taking full responsibility and have invested a lot of resources in internal affairs. The city is undertaking a process of purchasing body cameras that will assist or eradicate issues of corruption. They will also protect our officers and protect the public.”

Of course time will tell if this investment pays off, and the only true measure of its success will be a drop in the number of complaints against JMPD officers and the return of civilians’ confidence in their work.

The rationale behind the bodycam decision is supported by ever-increasing complaints of extortion levelled against JMPD officers. While the JMPD has had to dismiss a number of officials it found to have been involved in corrupt activities, many of these incidents do not conclude in officers taking accountability because there is little evidence to support the public claims.

The decision is a commendable one, if it does indeed work to mitigate incidents of criminality on the part of officers, but if the City were to be urged to take a step back to review the practicality of measures that encourage accountability and integrity among its forces, it would take another look at the CW report.

At the core of its recommendations is the narrow issue of motorists being able to identify officers who stop them on the road. One further suggestion made as part of No More Tjo Tjo was for an officer’s name, rank and precinct to be embroidered on to their uniform. This addresses the practice of removing pinned-on name tags by officers, and gives the motorist the assurance of knowing who the officer is. It is a practical measure that could have made a big difference, had it been implemented at the time.

Safety for motorists, or anonymity for officers?

This feature also helps the department monitor the performance of each officer on the field. Mokasi also admitted that the vetting process involved in the recruitment of officers is not error-proof, and that the JMPD does not shy away from dismissing officers who are discovered post-appointment to have a criminal record. Surely for the motorist involved, whose identity may be known to the officer at any time through their driver’s license, there is a sense of security in knowing the same of the officer?

Not necessarily, argues the South African Municipal Workers Union in Tshwane. Around the same time that the JMPD was going public with the bodycam initiative, Samwu was questioning the Tshwane Metro Police Department’s position in encouraging motorists to demand officers’ appointment certificates and to film their encounters with officials on duty, for their safety.

Spokesperson Ngoako Mathabatha argued in a statement that giving this power to motorists would endanger the safety of officials and erode public empathy for the risks they encounter in their jobs.

Any law-abiding motorist who is stopped by a metro officer, whether in Johannesburg or Tshwane, would want to be able to trust that they are in good hands, and that should things go wrong, there will be consequences for the officer involved. Surely video evidence taken under reasonably safe circumstances and without any other intention but to record a professional encounter between officer and civilian would not cause harm. If the argument is that the benefit of the doubt should be given to the officer on duty that he will do right by his oath of office, then equally the motorist could demand the same benefit that they do not harbour sinister intentions.

All in all, there are good arguments for giving motorists an opportunity for leverage to avoid being asked for bribes, and for officers to wear bodycams when dealing with civilians, but neither will achieve the zero-corruption culture that we could all benefit from. At least not until officers’ attitude towards corruption in their line of work on the roads changes.

Major cities like Johannesburg and Tshwane battle an assortment of serious crimes in circumstances where police capacity is disproportionate to the number of residents. However, it is always advisable to start with the basics, and then work your way up in advancing your resources.

For the sake of the people of Johannesburg, and those from other parts of Gauteng who commute to the city daily for work or school, CW hopes that the bodycams idea has staying power, and does actually end up helping to solve the big corruption problem motorists are subjected to.