South Africa’s newly appointed National Police Commissioner has not had an easy start. Just weeks into the job, he was welcomed by a spate of heists by armed gangs at Johannesburg shopping malls. Seven Days, Seven Robberies, one headline screamed.

The attacks – with a frequency usually reserved for the busy pre-Christmas season – underline the challenge facing Bheki Cele.

An equally grim problem lies ahead for President Jacob Zuma’s police chief in the public sector. A report by the auditor-general debated in parliament this month found widespread abuse of position by civil servants, who were doing business on the side with their own departments.

In the 22 months ending January 2007, more than 2,000 provincial-level civil servants had connections with companies that carried out work totalling R540.2m with the government, the report found.

Last month a separate report by the Public Service Commission, an oversight body, said fewer than half the senior public servants had filed their compulsory declarations of private interest by the cut-off date in the 2007/8 financial year.

A backlash against public servants skimming money off the state grew this week when the ruling African National Congress party said public servants with business interests were a threat to good governance standards and the provision of essential public services.

“We have identified the intersection between holding public office and business interests as the biggest threat that is there,” said Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general.

Mr Mantashe did not, however, endorse calls by ANC political allies such as the trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist party for a ban on such links.

The auditor-general’s report suggests a deeper malaise in South Africa that sustains crime and which Mr Cele will be hard-pressed to fight on his own. A survey of attitudes towards crime last year by the Institute of Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think-tank, found a majority admitting they would pay a bribe if asked to by an official or policeman.

“Dealing with crime will not only take the traditional policing approach. You need something far deeper, something that penetrates to the core of society,” said Prince Mashele, head of the ISS’s crime, justice and politics programme.

Building an intolerance of crime requires strengthening the country’s “social fabric”, Mr Mashele said. It requires a stronger parenting role to be played by schools and community organisations, such as churches, when many families are torn apart by divorce and the effects of HIV/Aids, he added.

This is a particularly big challenge for schools, which struggle to teach even a basic education – many first-year university students cannot read or write properly, according to a report to parliament earlier this month.

Mr Cele’s response is to talk tough. Appearing before parliament on August 5, he said the law should be changed to make it easier for police to use lethal force in situations where they faced violence.

This, Mr Mashele said, was not the answer for the trio of crimes which affect communities most directly – house robbery, car hijackings and business robbery.

“If I were him, I would say ‘Let us emphasise partnerships between government and the communities that fight crime’.

“Neighbourhood watches, street committees – those are the sort of things that would go a long way,” he added.

A daunting task faces the police chief who must show to the world that South Africa can host a safe football World Cup next year. But Mr Cele at least comes to the position without the clouds that formed over his predecessor.

Former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, suspended for 18 months before his contract was allowed to lapse, is charged with corruption and faces trial in October. Mr Cele’s appointment on July 29 gives police, and the country, hope for change.

“For now, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. He has no scandal. Let’s hope he remains clean,” Mr Mashele says.

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