Jackie Selebi gets all knotted up in parliament over report, writes Waghied Misbach

Perhaps it is to be expected that police officials would try to spin their statistics considering the bad press they've been getting lately about their crime-fighting ability.

Perhaps it is to be expected that police officials would try to spin their statistics considering the bad press they've been getting lately about their crime-fighting ability.

No outright lies, mind you, just a gentle massage of the facts to work out those pesky knots - leaving everyone all rosy and fresh afterwards. It seems all the rage these days, from the Union Buildings to city halls throughout the country. Pity the poor media people working for politicians.

National police commissioner Jackie Selebi referred to such knots himself in parliament this week, when he intervened while one of his own officials was answering questions from MPs on the performance of police in carrying out their duties as required by the Domestic Violence Act. "We're getting ourselves into knots," he finally declared as he realised that MPs were upset with the answers.

The police were presenting a report on domestic violence cases to the safety and security portfolio committee for the period January 1 to June 30 of this year. There were 45454 cases reported nationwide, up from about 43000 the previous six months.

But a telling figure is that complaints against police officers increased by more than 50percent from the previous six months, from 52 to 118.

But the police report argues the increase was because of more "heightened awareness" and "unfounded complaints" being reported.

Of course many complainants, particularly women, withdraw criminal charges against abusive partners fearing retribution and economic loss; but the police are also known for their gross incompetence and insensitivity in dealing with these types of cases.

To backtrack a little: When the committee started out, Selebi's eyelids were drooping a little and he didn't seem to be his usual perky self in contrast to previous committee hearings. So he was not wide awake enough to sense the increasing dismay and anger on the faces of MPs as he and his officials tried to explain why the police's report was so different from that of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). The ICD is the watchdog of the police. It's the ICD's duty to report on the failures of the police to act in domestic violence cases, and make recommendations on disciplinary action to punish offenders. A week ago, the ICD had presented a much less flattering report on police competency.

To put this all into perspective, it is instructive to see what MPs had drafted into law almost 10 years ago in the face of a growing crisis involving the abuse of women and children in society. In the preamble of the act it states that domestic violence is a "serious social evil, that there is a high incidence of domestic violence within South African society". It goes further to state that the law is fulfilling international, in particular UN, conventions - to help end violence towards women and children; and that it tries to give the maximum protection the law can provide.

Section 18 of the act passed in 1998 is clear: "Failure by a member of the SAPS to comply with an obligation in terms of this act . constitutes misconduct. Unless the ICD directs otherwise in any specific case, the SAPS must institute disciplinary proceedings against any member who allegedly failed to comply ."

The ICD must, every six months, submit a report to parliament regarding the number and particulars of matters reported to it.

"The national commissioner of the SAPS must, every six months, submit a report to parliament regarding: the number and particulars of complaints received against its members in respect of any failure; the disciplinary proceedings instituted as a result thereof and the decisions which emanated from such proceedings; and steps taken as a result of recommendations made by the ICD," the law states.

To sum up: the law gives the police wide-ranging power to intervene in domestic violence cases, including arrests without warrants. Lawmakers have also drawn up tough provisions to ensure police officers would be punished if they fail to act against those who abuse women and children.

But back to Selebi. He started answering questions with a startling admission, saying that some people report directly to the ICD while others report directly to the police, so that there would be a "little discrepancy in the figures from time to time". At this point MPs' brows started to furrow. You could sense their minds working and asking the obvious questions: "Surely this is a problem with communication? Why are two crime-fighting bodies not talking to each other?" And also, there doesn't seem to be a just a "little discrepancy" in the figures.

Selebi still didn't pick up on the discomfort raised by his comments because he became aggressive and questioned the ICD's ability to report on this issue. He said he could "swear" that the ICD had "never been to Calvinia" nor to other smaller towns across the country. It was only after further waffling by one of his officials that he seemed to realise the anger being aroused from the parliamentary benches.

For once, there seemed unanimity across the political spectrum with the ANC's Annelize Van Wyk, the IFP's Velaphi Ndlovu and the DA's Dianne Kohler-Barnard all agreeing that the situation was unacceptable; and they didn't know who to believe. It's a good thing the ICD and the police have to report to parliament again, in a joint session this time. Someone has to account for what's happening to our vulnerable women and children.