“I am a great struggle hero. I was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1987 to 1990. Therefore you, a white man, are a racist if you mention the fact that poor black women and children are being murdered, raped, robbed and terrorised in the townships because of the utter failure of my police force to protect them.”

Was this the gist of the outburst by the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, against Ian Cameron, an activist for community security? It happened on Tuesday, 5 July, at a community meeting in Gugulethu, near Cape Town, when Cele was addressing the people. Cameron, a young white activist, of “Action Society”, fighting crime and violence in the townships, accused the minister of callous neglect of poor black people, especially women and children. He said to the minister, hiding behind his bodyguards and patrol cars, that he was “removed from reality” (the reality of life in the crime-ridden townships), and said “I graciously invite you” to discard his armed protectors, take off his uniform, and walk with him in the filthy, perilous streets to experience some of the horror that ordinary black people experience every day of their lives

The minister responded in an hysterical rant against Cameron, accusing him of racism, accusing him of regarding him as a “garden boy”, and stated that he had fought heroically against apartheid and been imprisoned on Robben Island. He didn’t reply to a single item in the detailed list of criticisms of his policing that Cameron had laid before him. He screamed at Cameron to shut up.

I heard of this extraordinary incident on the radio and listened several times to exactly what Cameron said and exactly what Cele said and tried to gauge the loud response of the mainly black crowd. I found it puzzling but revealing, and deeply depressing.

Need for a good police force

Few countries have more need of a good police force than South Africa, and few have a worse one. Violent crime is perhaps the worst of all our problems and the cause of many others, such as unemployment and economic decline. Businessmen do not want to invest in South Africa if their employees are likely to be robbed or murdered. Foreign construction companies do not want to build bridges, factories, or hospitals here if armed gangsters are going to kill them unless they hand over 30% of the value of their projects (as was well described in a recent Daily Friend article by Jonathan Katzenellenbogen).

Under apartheid, the first priority of the police was to protect white people against crime and enforce the evil apartheid laws, such as the pass laws and group areas laws. Protecting poor black people from crime had low priority. Under the ANC, the police still regard protecting poor black people from violent crime in the townships as low priority. Worse, the police are often implicated in crime themselves, as in cash-in-transit robberies.

South Africa has massive inequality. There is inequality in wealth, education, and health care, but the biggest inequality of all is in security. There is a massive difference between the relative safety of the suburbs and the terrible danger of the townships, where poor people cower in perpetual fear, sometimes terror, from violent crime. I am too scared to go into the townships myself (so admitting I am a typical cowardly white liberal) but when I speak to the people who do live in them, I am always horrified. It is worst of all for African foreigners in the townships. Cele made it quite clear in his outburst that he doesn’t care a damn about the plight of poor black people. He obviously feels himself mightily superior to the working-class masses.

Bheki Cele

Bheki Cele was born in 1952. He has a diploma in education. He was an ANC activist under apartheid and was arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island from 1987 to 1990. He was appointed National Commissioner of the police in 2009 but fired in 2012 after allegations of unlawful property deals. He was Deputy Minister of Agriculture from 2014 until 2018, when President Ramaphosa made him Minister of Police, where he remains today. Various reports said that Cele had told his police to “shoot to kill”, although he afterwards denied this and said he only meant them to use lethal force when necessary. He rants against “undocumented foreigners” but gives the impression he is ranting against all African foreigners, very much in line with the ANC’s recent decision to end the visas of decent, hard-working, law-abiding Zimbabweans, driven out of their country by Mugabe’s hell after the ANC had helped Mugabe to continue his tyranny.

Responding to the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy in East London on 26 June, when 21 teenagers died (in heaven’s name why don’t we know the cause of death over a week later?), Cele said the parents of the deceased must bear responsibility for their deaths – rather than, say, the police for not enforcing safety and age regulations at the tavern.

Bheki Cele can be as brave as a lion or as timid as a mouse. Confronted with violent criminals or armed insurrection (as happened exactly a year ago in the rioting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, when over 300 people were killed), he is as timid as a mouse. He was as timid as a mouse in Gugulethu last week, when he never walked among ordinary people and cowered behind his armed bodyguards. But he was as brave as a lion when he was screaming at Ian Cameron.

He was also as brave as a lion in December 2020 when he courageously advanced onto Clifton Beach in Cape Town, escorted only by a minimal force of policemen with long guns (they looked like shotguns to me). The enemy he was confronting was a film crew doing an advertisement for a non-alcoholic beverage. There is a picture, now rather famous, of one of his zero-tolerance policemen, brandishing his shotgun in front of a puzzled little boy on the beach. He was also as brave as a lion when helping President Ramaphosa to implement his first, most rigorous Covid lockdown decrees, which forbade people going into the sunshine or warmth or fresh air or open spaces. (I remember going for a little jog at the time and frightened the police might catch me running alone on the local sand dunes after 09h00 when the sun was coming up and it was getting warmer.) Surfers, alone on open oceans, bathed in fresh air and sunshine, seemed public enemy number one to President Ramaphosa and his Minister of Police.

Unusual activist

Ian Cameron is an unusual activist. Throughout the struggle against apartheid, white liberals, of whom I was one, tended to stay in safe, rich, white suburbs, and to wage their wars from the security of white universities such as UCT and Wits. Friends in the old Liberal Party (banned out of existence by the apartheid government) tell me it was very difficult to find any white liberal prepared to go within a mile of a black township. Cameron, unarmed, goes right into the centre of the most dangerous townships in South Africa, perhaps in the world. He seems a real hero. He is a better man than me. I’d like to know more about him.

Bheki Cele, on the other hand, seems no different from any other ANC minister over the last 28 years. I was interested to hear the reaction of the black audience in Gugulethu when he went into his rant against Cameron. There was a roar from the crowd as Cele declared he was a struggle hero and Cameron must shut up. Was the roar for Cele or Cameron? Cameron had plenty of support from the black audience when he spoke. But when Cele attacked him, were some of the crowd cheering Cele? If so, it means Cele was right to assume that ordinary black people would forgive any corruption and oppression from their black leaders as long as they accused whites of racism.

Cele said Cameron looked upon him as a “garden boy”. Please listen to the whole of Cameron’s speech. Now listen again. Do you hear any hint that Cameron looked down upon Cele? Any hint of “garden boy”? I heard none. I heard Cameron repeatedly addressing Cele as “Sir”. (Is this disrespectful? Should he have called him “Your Excellency” or “Your Majesty”?) Does this mean that some black people will tolerate any greed, corruption and oppression from their black leaders as long as they keep boasting about their liberation credentials?

Thirty five years after Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe, after he had slaughtered over 20 000 black people in his Gukurahundi pogrom, after he had seized the private farms and driven over 750 000 black farm workers and their families into destitution, after he had caused economic collapse while enormously enriching his family and cronies, after he had caused millions of ordinary black people to flee his country, he knew that at any public meeting he could say that he was a great liberation hero against the evil white regime of Ian Smith, and be assured of deafening applause from a certain section of his audience. Can rich ANC ministers be assured of such applause after they have wrecked the lives of poor black people? The Cele incident suggests maybe.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.