South Africa Reforms Its Police Force but Changes Spur Resistance - and Growing Resignations over Policy

Article excerpt

THE South African Police Force - for decades the upholder of apartheid - is torn by dissent over government attempts to shed the past and make it a neutral force in a changing society.

Since embarking on a course of political liberalization nine months ago, President Frederik de Klerk has targeted the police force for modernization and reorientation. It has issued new instructions that would focus police responsibilities on opposing criminal activites rather than anti-apartheid actions.

This has created some bitterness among a largely conservative and underpaid police force, vested for decades with sweeping powers to crack down on anti-apartheid groups like the African National Congress (ANC).

"Our whole lives have been devoted to rooting out the ANC wherever it was to be found," says a police officer on condition of anonymity. "I support the legalization of the ANC, but there is tremendous resistance at lower levels."

Now a few policemen are having to protect ANC leaders who they see staying in luxury hotels at the state's expense, and being rushed to negotiations with government officials in limousines.

Police "are frustrated because they are having to implement policies with which they don't agree," says Moolman Mentz, a spokesman for the right-wing Conservative Party. The CP is well represented in police ranks, and has been incensed by a recent directive that prohibits police membership in political parties.

The ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, at the same time, say that the police and right-wing vigilantes are the main obstacles to progress toward a negotiated settlement.

The pressure has begun to take its toll.

Members of the police force have been resigning at a rate of 20 a day - a level three times what it was a year ago. Morale is said to be at an all-time low. Escalating crime nationwide is causing a crisis of public confidence in the police.

Morale has also been dented by ongoing disclosures about police involvement in a hit-squad network mandated to harass and kill anti-apartheid activists.

Tensions within the 66,000-member force have been exacerbated by a nationwide proliferation of far right-wing groups and armed vigilantes bent on thwarting black rule, which they believe is inevitable with police reforms.

In conservative rural and mining towns, frightened whites have armed themselves and formed patrols to confront blacks who venture into the town by night.

"The police are being compelled by President Frederik de Klerk to become a neutral force," says Jan van Eck, a legislator from the moderately liberal Democratic Party. "But the danger is that white vigilantes will take over the role that De Klerk is preventing the police from playing."

In towns like Welkom - a prosperous mining town with a large black population - this process is already under way.

For the past two months, vigilantes from two rival groups have almost usurped the role of the understaffed police force. They boast there will never be another black protest march in the town. …