South African Police Seek A Kinder, Gentler Image

New chief has difficult job: to not alienate old white officers and cope with defiant black township police

SOUTH African police are trying to break with the brutal apartheid-tainted past and adapt to the new democratic spirit of black majority rule. But racial tensions among police and dirty secrets from the past are hobbling attempts to remold the force and maintain law and order.

Last week, President Nelson Mandela appointed a new commissioner of police, George Fivaz, to revitalize the force and give it a new image more palatable to black townships which waged virtual warfare with the police under white rule.

Mr. Fivaz, a junior general, has two major things going for him - he is a white Afrikaner and thus less likely to alienate conservative police who have held onto their positions from the apartheid days. And he has the reputation for honesty, unblemished by ties with security forces that oppressed anti-apartheid activists in the past.

But Fivaz faces one of the deepest crises the South Africa police have ever experienced - unprecedented lack of discipline and defiance by black police that threatens to unleash lingering white resistance to change.

His first week in office involved contending with the chaotic aftermath of a virtual race war that broke out within the force after a mutineering black policeman was shot dead in Soweto township Jan. 27 by a white police officer. Fivaz also had to quell strikes that flared in several police stations where white commanders were forcibly ejected by their black staff.

Then, he headed off a potential conflict in the volatile former homeland KwaZulu, where problems linger in recognizing the authority of the new central government. Members of the erstwhile homelands' now-defunct police force had defiantly planned a parade last week, but the new commission succeeded in cancelling it without any major confrontation.

Fivaz displayed remarkable savvy and decisiveness and - in a break with the past - a willingness to listen. He cancelled the KwaZulu parade and avoided a confrontation. He headed off the mutinies, for now, by brokering a deal with the black-dominated Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union and setting up union-management teams.

He expressed outrage at the killing in Soweto, saying it was unacceptable for the white Internal Stability Unit to intervene in an internal police-labor dispute. He condemned the racist screaming match between black and white officers over police radios following the shooting.

``Everything can be resolved by negotiation and for as long as I am commissioner that is how it's going to be,'' Fivaz said.

Many people are not so sure.

``What happened last week was very disconcerting. It points to deep-rooted tensions which are potentially destabilizing,'' said one Western diplomat.

He and other observers point to lingering suspicions by black communities of the police, which were reviled for complicity with the apartheid regime and brutal methods of putting down resistance. Even before last April's democratic elections, the police have been trying to repair their relations with township residents, but the going has been slow. Yet to be finalized is long-delayed legislation which envisages retraining of officers in community policing, teamwork and conflict resolution.

Then there are the unfulfilled expectations of the black police themselves, generally low in the ranks and poorly paid. Hopes of rapid changes in life under the black majority government have not brought bigger salaries, promotions to the upper echelons, and an end to an often autocratic hierarchy.

Also worrying is how the African National Congress-led coalition government will rein in rebel police of the former KwaZulu homeland which view themselves as an autonomous entity. The erstwhile police force was used to fight the ANC during factional conflicts which killed 10,000 people over a decade. The violence in the Zulu-dominated area has not fully disappeared under the new dispensation.

Former white police officials, meanwhile, are providing a major dilemma for the national unity government, which has seen severe splits between the ANC and former ruling National Party over amnesties and public disclosures in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission being set up to provide reparations for apartheid-era human rights abuses.

The commission will have investigation and subpoena power to compel testimony about tortures and murders, and to give immunity from prosecution if the individuals admit to what they did. The NP has won concessions from the ANC to allow amnesty proceedings to be held privately.

Then a major row threatening the coalition erupted over disclosures that 3,500 police had been granted immunity from prosecution before the white government left office.

The predecessor of Fivaz, Gen. Johan van der Merwe, has complicated the matter by warning that police might implicate political leaders in apartheid crimes if they did not themselves acknowledge collective responsibility. This is potentially embarrassing to both parties concerned and is likely to meet resistance from high-ranking politicians.

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