Inside SA's police assassination problem
The killing of a top cop outside his home in Cape Town last month puts SA at a crossroads, in a landscape where political contests, turf wars over transport routes, gang rivalries and police officers who resist corruption are routinely ‘sorted out’ at the barrel of a gun, write Mark Shaw and Julian Rademeyer
The killing was over in seconds. CCTV footage shows a man in a red hoodie hurriedly crossing a road towards a white Toyota. He tugs at a gun, concealed in his clothes, as he approaches the driver’s window. Point blank, he fires several tightly grouped shots at his target, then turns and runs. It is as professional as cold-blooded murder can ever be. In an instant, the killing of Western Cape Gang Unit section commander Lt-Col Charl Kinnear, 52, outside his Cape Town home last month, shattered the unwritten rules governing uneasy relationships between gangs and police, pursuers and the pursued.
Kinnear was assassinated, not only because he was targeted by criminal figures, but because he had crossed a faultline within the police itself. His murder highlights a simple fact — it is now impossible to tell the difference between some parts of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and organised crime itself.
The killing is a decisive moment for SA. This is borne out by our own experience, responding as a global civil society network to organised crime in countries around the world. What happens next will have profound consequences for the country’s ability to combat organised crime, respond to corruption and rehabilitate and reinvigorate a police service in crisis, floundering in a morass of corruption and criminality.
PODCAST | The killing of Charl Kinnear: a community demands justice
This is a struggle against the power of organised crime, its increasing stranglehold on South African society and the extent to which the police themselves have facilitated its rise.
Police minister Bheki Cele seems, for the first time, at a loss for words. But the slow-building pressure that has led to this crisis has occurred on his watch — first as national police commissioner and now as minister. Tough talk cannot replace a strategic, carefully considered response.
Three dead colonels
The killing of Kinnear came almost six months to the day after the murder of another senior organised crime investigator.
Lt-Col Leroy Bruwer, 49, was driving to work in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, on March 17 when he was ambushed by a gunman or gunmen wielding “heavy calibre weapons”. He died in a hail of bullets.
Like Kinnear, Bruwer had received numerous death threats. Bruwer was lauded for his role in investigating dangerous criminal networks engaged in rhino poaching. He had been successful in identifying and arresting several kingpins and those close to him have no doubt he was targeted because of this.
Four months before the hit on Bruwer, another Western Cape officer, Lt-Col André Kay, 54, was gunned down outside his house.
Kay was part of the Western Cape firearm, liquor and secondhand goods unit. Again, it was a professional job: the gunmen opened fire on Kay, then ran over a railway line to a waiting car.
Kay’s death, however, was surrounded by ominous allegations that he had been targeted by gang bosses not because he was doing his job, but because he had been corrupted.
In partnership with a top gang boss in the Western Cape, Kay is said to have assisted in taking out life insurance policies for young, low-level gangsters — a grisly business model based on the fact that they die like flies in gang warfare. When one was killed, the policy would be cashed in and Kay would reportedly share the money with a gang boss. Only it seems he didn’t, or there was a dispute of some sort, and he was killed.
If this truly was the reason for Kay’s death, his slaying is as important a harbinger as the deaths of Kinnear and Bruwer.
This triangle of murders is the culmination of accelerated erosion in the SAPS and the isolation of competent, skilled investigators. Unless something changes, the consequences will be severe.
The objective is not only to kill, it is to remove a stumbling block to illicit gain. And it is to permanently damage the state’s ability to respond
In the case of Bruwer, a prosecutor who had worked closely with him, advocate Isabet Erwee, said of his murder: “I have no doubt that Lt-Col Bruwer’s death is related to the cases he was working. The timing and the violence of his death are no coincidence. People like him are irreplaceable.”
The sentiment also captures perfectly the objective of organised crime: not only to kill, but to remove a stumbling block to illicit gain. And to permanently damage the state’s ability to respond.
Illicit economy suffocating SA
The deaths of the three colonels are a culmination of a two-decade-long expansion of an underworld economy in SA, and the organised crime groups that control it.
It is difficult to disentangle the linkages between multiple criminal markets in SA. The drugs business has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, with new drugs and new sources of supply. The illegal wildlife trade has burgeoned as Asian and other markets have grown. There is a convergence between different markets as gangs seek diversity: drugs, guns, abalone, diamonds, prostitution — all in a single business enterprise.
South African crime bosses have also made connections elsewhere: Latin America, Turkey, Asia, the Balkans (think of Serbian hits in SA), and of course into Africa.
At the time of his death, Kinnear was on the brink of cracking a massive “guns-to-gangs” syndicate in the police’s Central Firearms Registry, one that implicated senior police officers. Guns, legal and illegal, are the currency of the underworld. It is all too predictable that the Central Firearms Registry would be targeted.
Gangs and other armed groups, including private security companies, now openly engage in extortion, whether it is at a local butchery on the Cape Flats, at night-time entertainment venues, or at construction sites in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Cape gang economy — and its assorted leadership — should not be seen simply as a feature of the “Cape gangs” easily dismissed from Johannesburg or Pretoria as a uniquely Cape condition. The bosses are a criminal elite, linked to others elsewhere to form a national network of organised crime figures.
These individuals — some with a media profile and some operating quietly in the shadows — number somewhere in the 20s. They are in regular contact and competition with each other. It is not unknown for them to debate a business deal and then arrange one another’s murders shortly afterwards.
Foundations of policing have crumbled
To investigate organised crime, police have to expose themselves directly to it, venturing into the darkest reaches of the criminal underworld. Few emerge unsullied. Relationships with gangsters, criminals, pimps, killers, drug dealers and addicts are a necessity to obtain intelligence and information. Money and favours readily change hands.
It is an inherently compromising environment. Dockets disappear, some criminals are targeted for investigation and others, who are protected as valuable informants, become untouchable. It is a story as old as the policing of organised crime itself.
‘I have no doubt that Lt-Col Bruwer’s death is related to the cases he was working. The timing and the violence of his death are no coincidence’
Many countries respond to the threat of corruption in law enforcement with strong forms of oversight. That has not been the case in SA. The police have never had a truly effective anti-corruption agency. Here, the unspoken message from the top brass has been that systems of oversight are a hindrance to effective policing.
But without them, and amid the waves of criminality and corruption washing over the institutions meant to contain them, the foundations of policing have crumbled.
The rot began, predictably, in crime intelligence (CI), heirs to the corrupt apartheid-era security branch. During the internecine conflict between party and state that crippled so many institutions under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, CI’s tools of deceit and interception were deployed for political rather than policing purposes.
Corrupt and criminal officers, like Richard Mdluli, were put in charge. Secret slush funds were looted. CI officers increasingly, and often brazenly, became entwined with the criminal underworld, or drawn into political dirty tricks.
Ex-cop may have pulled the trigger
The circumstances around Kinnear’s murder are gradually becoming known, but so much misinformation, so many claims and counterclaims and rumours abound, it is almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.
Talk in the Western Cape is now of a crime intelligence “rogue unit” within the police, which may have had a hand in his murder. There are suggestions that senior cops, threatened by Kinnear’s investigations of corruption in the Central Firearms Registry, had a hand in his demise. And there are reports that Kinnear had also uncovered an international criminal network involved in illegal diamond and gold smuggling in Gauteng.
What is consistent about all these explanations is that Kinnear’s killing appears to have been orchestrated by a coalition of gang bosses and crooked state actors. A tainted police officer or ex-police officer is even said to have pulled the trigger.
Corrupt and criminal officers, like Richard Mdluli, were put in charge. Secret slush funds were looted. CI officers increasingly, and often brazenly, became entwined with the criminal underworld
An alignment between the underworld and the police in carrying out assassinations is not new. Look at events around the Glebelands hostel in KwaZulu-Natal, where the trial of the so-called “Glebelands Eight” heard evidence last year of a police officer leading a “murderous cabal” and supplying hitmen with weapons.
What is new is that senior police officers are being directly targeted for assassination. That represents a seismic shift.
Reservoirs of killers
If Kinnear’s death is as much to do with the illicit economy encroaching onto the police, it also is the result of a particular phenomenon that builds in societies uniquely challenged by organised crime — what might be called “the assassination economy”.
In SA, as in Central America and the Balkans, targeted killings have accompanied the growth of the illicit economy. These draw on ready reservoirs of killers — in our case from hostels, the taxi industry, or the Cape gangs themselves.
The exact number of assassinations in SA is hard to count. Defining what they are and collecting the data is challenging. By our count — drawing on media and police reports and court documents — hits averaged between 50 and 80 per year through the period 2000 to 2015.
This is a conservative estimate and the real numbers are likely higher, but it gives an overview of the likely trend.
From about 2015 there is a marked escalation, skyrocketing to over 200 cases in 2018. The numbers have declined for 2019, but there were still at least 150 identified cases. (The 2018 peak is the result of a surge in taxi conflict, which declined in 2019 and 2020.)
The political economy of hits
What has grown in this period are politically related hits in KwaZulu-Natal. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime has recorded 345 politically motivated assassinations in the province since 2010, on average about one every 10 days.
The number of targeted killings tied to the criminal underworld in SA also appears to be on the rise.
If political hits are a signifier of political instability and competition within the ANC, most notably in KwaZulu-Natal, organised crime hits are a reflection of a struggle for control of different criminal markets, often with political overlays of their own. That struggle overlaps into the police.
The political economy of hits, with its quasi-professional killers, is now a feature of the South African landscape. It is driven by demand — people who are eager to pay — and supply — there are experienced killers ready, willing and able to be recruited. And it has mutated from isolated killings in rural areas and between taxi associations to threaten and cow the very instruments of the criminal justice system itself. Lawyers, a doctor, even a magistrate, have been targets.
What can be done?
The first step that needs to be taken is to recognise the problem for what it is. Elements of the police now act like the very criminal groups they are meant to police. The rot runs deep and into the senior leadership.
In SA, the “few bad apples” analogy no longer holds water. Of course, that does not mean that there are not good police — and many are signalling the danger — but they are on the back foot. The killing of senior organised crime investigators like Kinnear and Bruwer forces them to look at themselves in the mirror each morning and wonder if they should, or can, still do the job. They have families and children to protect. There is an undeniable chilling effect.
The state has to change that calculation, not only by taking into custody the hitmen, but also by investigating and prosecuting the bosses, and their police allies. A response within the framework of the rule of law is as symbolic as it is powerful. It enables the shaming of the perpetrators and the clear rejection of their actions by society.
The opposite often happens. The police lash out. There are killings and unexplained disappearances, as in Brazil. The police in effect become just another violent gang or a vigilante group.
Admitting mistakes a start
What the political and police leadership do now is of vital importance. Tough talk is all but useless and creates a cycle of violence, something the police minister seems to have grasped. Admission of mistakes is a start, and he has done this. But there also needs to be follow-through and targeted action.
Police in any government are a powerful voice. But in this case, the over-generalled and mismanaged SAPS needs to be challenged.
The police are intended as an instrument of policy to make society safe. If they contribute to the dangers for ordinary citizens, and for democracy itself, urgent corrective measures have to be taken.
For far too long, efforts to root out corruption and criminality in the police have been stymied and thwarted.
Perhaps the tragic deaths of Kinnear and Bruwer can inspire the radical shift that is so desperately needed and galvanise a public, punch-drunk from daily exposure to violence and crime, to fight for that change.
This is SA’s test. Dealing with the corrupting influence of organised crime on the police and bringing the assassins and masterminds to book would be the best tribute we could give Kinnear and Bruwer and those like them who stand up to organised crime.
• Shaw is the director, and Rademeyer the director for east and southern Africa, at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime