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Deputy minister of safety and security Susan Shabangu has come under fire after her remarks at an anti-crime imbizo in Pretoria on Wednesday.
Shabangu encouraged police to "shoot to kill" criminals and disregard stipulations in the law if they felt threatened.
"You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community,"Shabangu said. "You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and protect."
She said she would not tolerate "pathetic excuses" for the police's failure to deal with crime.
"You have been given guns, now use them," Shabangu said.
Gun Free SA (GFSA) lambasted Shabangu, accusing her of inciting the police to break the law.
"We are shocked and highly disturbed by her emotional outburst," said GFSA spokesman Reverend John Oliver. "It is unfortunate and irresponsible since it appears to encourage the police to break the law."
The SA Human Rights Commission said Shabangu's statement disregarded the law.
"Of particular concern are the deputy minister's remarks that the police have permission to kill criminals at will and without the need to fire warning shots.
"These remarks can only be described as inciting, disparaging and dismissive of the rule of law," said HRC spokesman Vincent Moaga.
The SA Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights (Saphor) criticised Shabangu.
"She's giving the police licence to kill while we're struggling with police brutality," said Sapohr spokesman Golden Miles Bhudu.
Bhudu accused Shabangu of encouraging "trigger happy" police officers to be more brutal.
He said the deputy minister's comments were "unbecoming, unacceptable and unprofessional".
Shabangu's spokesman, Noxolo Kweza, said the minister stood by her comments.
The ACDP agreed with the deputy minister.
"If a criminal is armed and points a firearm at a policeman, they have the right to shoot back," said ACDP president Kenneth Meshoe.
Meshoe said police should not be reduced to "sacrificial lambs" and outnumbered by "cruel criminals".
"Any nation that allows its police to be lame ducks will descend into chaos and turn into a banana republic," Meshoe warned.