In S. Africa, race reversal on police force

Other groups now recruited after push for black officers

May 15, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When he read that the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department was looking for recruits with rugby player physiques, Emile Engelbrecht knew he fit the bill at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds.

But it was another trait explicitly sought by the department's brass that made him apply to be an officer: white skin.

"Maybe I am the perfect candidate at this stage," said the 31-year-old. "They saw they made a mistake, and they need us white guys to help do the work."

Having gone from a white-dominated force to a black-dominated one in the 13 years since apartheid's demise, the Johannesburg police force now says the pendulum has swung too far. Much of the change occurred in the 1990s as whites left in droves, often for private security jobs, and hiring black officers became a top priority.

Now, in an unusual step, the black-led department is actively seeking white officers as well as mixed-race "coloreds" and those of Indian descent. Its goal is a police force that mirrors regional demographics - something officials say would enhance community relations and meet the country's aggressive racial hiring laws.

"It's good for white people and colored and Indian people to see that they are being represented in the Police Department," said Chief Superintendent Wayne Minnaar, who is of mixed race.

For nonblack recruits, "the message is, `There is a place for you,'" he said. "We do give everyone a fair chance."

At the same time, the move underscores the huge role that race still plays in South Africa, and it adds fodder to a long-running debate about how the country is heeding Nelson Mandela's idealistic call for a "nonracial" society as it tries to redress apartheid's wrongs.

Firm racial targets are unwise whether they benefit whites or blacks, argues John Kane-Berman, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

"If I call a policeman, I actually would prefer somebody to come on time, take a statement, pursue the case," he said. "I actually couldn't care whether he was black, white or green. I'd rather have a competent black policeman than a useless white one."

Kane-Berman says the country is too fixated on race, just as during the decades-long era of white rule. He opposes affirmative action and says schools must be improved to help blacks compete for jobs on merit.

Affirmative action seems especially contentious when it comes to the police. Crime ranks as a top public concern in surveys, and newspapers routinely report on horrific crimes, including a recent home invasion in which a woman died after intruders poured boiling water over her. Public confidence in the police is low.

Another reason for the touchiness is that during apartheid, police carried out some of the worst abuses against the black majority. With the advent of democracy in 1994, many white members of the old force left and were replaced by freshly trained black officers. For some blacks, the sight of a white officer can still stir uneasy feelings.

White critics of race-based policies see the Metro Police campaign as a baby step toward a day when hiring will be based foremost on merit, and any government intervention will help uplift the poor of all races.

"We think that is the beginning of a slow death for affirmative action, and that is good," said Dirk Hermann of the mostly white labor union Solidarity.

Yet a key motivation behind the Metro Police drive is a national law - the Employment Equity Act - that is unpopular with the white minority. Companies, nonprofit groups and most government agencies with more than 50 employees must shape their staffs to mirror the racial makeup of the community. Failure to do so can result in fines or, with government agencies, potential termination for the top boss.

In most cases, the law still favors black hiring, given the powerful legacy of apartheid, which ensured that whites got most corporate and civil service jobs, not to mention superior education, despite making up just 10 percent of the population.

The national South African Police Service has stirred debate with its own employment equity plan. Unlike the Johannesburg police, that department is still whiter than its community, in this case, the nation as a whole. As a result, the national police force plans to shrink white management over three years from 35 percent to 9.6 percent "ideally" and to 18.5 percent "realistically."

Even fans of the Metro Police campaign recognize the danger of putting undue weight on having white officers. Darren Bergman, a white Johannesburg city councilman, recalls being at a police station when a woman phoned and said, "Please only send a white policeman over."

"It's a very dangerous perception if you start ordering what type of police you want looking after you," he said.

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