'Shoot 'em dead', police are told; It seems the gloves are off. South Africa's violent criminals have been warned by Susan Shabangu, the country's deputy security minister, that she wants the police to shoot them dead. Tom Nevin reports on the reaction.

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position:SOUTH AFRICA

It has been a couple of months since Susan Shabangu, South Africa's deputy safety and security minister, exhorted the police to "kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community", referring to the country's criminal element and how to deal with them.

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Fortunately, her words did not provoke a rash of high noon shoot-outs and police operations have conformed to the training manual. Nonetheless, Shabangu's words did trigger startled reaction in the criminal justice system and the general population, little of it negative. Shabangu--youthful, attractive and always stylishly turned out--has a way of lining her words with steel, and putting her finger on the most sensitive of public pulses.

Speaking to an audience of policemen and women at an anti-crime workshop she said: "If criminals dare to threaten the police, or the livelihood or lives of innocent men, women and children, they must be killed. End of story. You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and protect."

Shabangu may have been shooting from the hip, but her comments both define the status quo and open a way forward in the way police must deal with its criminal element, out of control for more than a decade.

Although she didn't try to explain her remarks away as a metaphoric call for tougher action against mainly violent criminals plaguing South Africa, she left no one in any doubt that robbers, rapists and hijackers were getting away with murder and that police were restrained by prevailing and new laws that dictated levels of direct armed response.

Her hard public stance has been interpreted by the more cynical as excellent PR and a sure-fire way of lifting her national persona from dutiful deputy in the shadow of Charles Nqakula, her tough-talking minister, to a kind of 'Annie-Get-Your-Gun' hero of a long-suffering public. Every now and then Shabangu fires off sound-bites like target-seeking missiles. She made the nation's mothers and fathers sit up and take notice (let alone her audience of 500 pupils at a school in Mitchell's Plain, Cape Town) when she said girls can avoid pregnancy by avoiding boys.

"These boys treat you like bubble gum," she said. "When there is no sugar they spit you out. Don't allow them make you a bubblegum."

Judge, jury and executioner

Her 'shoot first and ask questions later' rhetoric was interpreted by...

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