tough talk by MINISTER

FIRM HAND: Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa visits Bambayi where two officers were killed. 13/04/09. Pic. Mhlaba Memela. © Sowetan.
FIRM HAND: Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa visits Bambayi where two officers were killed. 13/04/09. Pic. Mhlaba Memela. © Sowetan.

DAPPER in his conservative suits, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa gives the impression of a no-nonsense type with no time for small talk and banter.

A conversation with him only serves to confirm certain aspects of this view.

"I do not have much time outside what I dedicated myself to," says the minister.

What he dedicated his life to, he says, is the struggle to better the lives of others.

Nowhere is this ambition better realised than in his position as political head of policing.

His training is not in police work, he concurs, "Mine is more in minerals and energy, the broader community development, communications and leadership.

"I do not necessarily have to be a police [officer] as all I do is work within the policies of the ruling party. Our experiences in dealing with apartheid have also prepared us for mastering issues of security."

It is enough he's steeped in and has accepted the calling to serve in public office, says the ANC cadre, whose local branch is at rural KwaMthethwa in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

A stickler for getting the job done, when he speaks about the now-defunct Scorpions, you'd think the former elite crime prevention unit was a Hollywood figment of one's imagination.

He refers to the arrests of corrupt police officers by their own "without fanfare" and says he throws himself into his work, "not as a publicity stunt".

He will not talk of the Hawks, the newest priority crime investigations unit that replaced the Scorpions, in comparison with the latter. The Hawks comprise a combination of organisational expertise: "From that point of view, then, it is a better force to deal with issues of crime."

Like their predecessor, whose fundamental mandate was to fight trans-national crime, Mthethwa says the Hawks will "from time to time have to deal with such issues".

The issues in question refer to the twin scourges of drugs and human trafficking since South Africa is increasingly becoming a transit point eyed by cartels around the world: "These are global problems that need a global response."

It is for this reason, he says, that such partnerships as the IBSA - India, Brazil and South Africa - are crucial in the fight against crime.

"Countries of the south, including Brazil, Thailand and so forth, are now the targets of highly organised criminal activity."

South Africa is strategically placed for the druglords and the upcoming 2010 World Cup has not made things any easier, according to the minister.

The solution lies in strengthening border policing as most crime happens at ports of entry: "We have therefore decided, for 2010 and beyond, to return the army to the borders so the [SAPS] can beef up visible policing inland."

The criminals have sharpened their modus operandi, "way before the Fifa Confederations Cup".

But the minister does not mince his words when asked if they are up to the challenge.

"When the police say they have a plan, believe me they do," he says.

A hands-on kind of leader, Mthethwa has personally travelled to hotspotss such as Matatiele to see first-hand how stock theft is sowing mayhem in the border communities there.

He says he's been to Free State, where corrupt officers were bust "and I was on hand to congratulate the provincial commissioner".

Crime will be harshly dealt with, irrespective of who the perpetrator is, says the minister.

His deputy, former ANC Youth League firebrand Fikile Mbalula, matches Mthethwa's bravado.

"I have full confidence in him," he says of his Number 2.

"We worked together in the South African Youth Congress. We've taken hard decisions before and, even here, we're still going to take a lot more serious decisions together."

Shortly after taking the oath of office Mbalula issued a stern warning to criminals. This is the language Mthethwa himself speaks fluently.

While he speaks highly of Mbalula, he holds a directly opposite view about corrupt officers, a species soon to be extinct if Mthethwa's hard words are anything to go by.

What about disgraced national police commissioner Jackie Selebi?

"Contrary to media reports the Selebi issue gives me no sleepless nights. How can I? He was duly informed that when his contract expires, it will not be renewed. The president will in time announce a replacement for Selebi."

He's knuckled down to putting internal infrastructure in place.

"Just last month I appointed the head of crime intelligence. We need that data."

Crime intelligence and community involvement are high up on the minister's priority list in the fight against crime.

He beats his chest that during December last year there were few incidents of crime as the available crime intelligence let them intercept before the criminals could act.

The police cannot win the war alone: "We need to partner with communities."

Nkosinathi Mthethwa, who herded cattle in rural KwaZulu-Natal and played soccer in the dusty streets of Klaarwater, near Pinetown, is attuned to the ways of the criminal.

He talks tough and there's no doubt he can walk the talk.