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Zuma Police Bungles Exposed by South Africa Mine Killings

South Africa’s most lethal police action since the end of apartheid in 1994 has highlighted President Jacob Zuma’s failure to get to grips with security in a country where 43 people are murdered every day.

“It’s too late for Zuma to do anything meaningful to restore people’s trust in the police,” Frans Cronje, deputy chief executive officer of the South African Institute of Race Relations, said in a Aug. 17 phone interview from Johannesburg. “All that he can do is to act decisively on those who were responsible.”

Police shot dead 34 striking workers and injured 78 others on Aug. 16 after six days of violence between rival unions at Lonmin Plc (LMI)’s platinum mine in the North West province. Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, appointed by Zuma two months ago, has no experience in criminal justice. She replaced Bheki Cele, a Zuma ally whom the president was forced to fire in the wake of a corruption scandal.

Zuma is struggling to maintain public trust in the security services as he prepares to seek re-election as head of the ruling African National Congress in December. South Africa’s murder rate is 31.9 per 100,000 people, more than six times higher than in the U.S. That’s in part being fueled by a 25 percent jobless rate, the highest of more than 60 nations tracked by Bloomberg.

Team Zuma

Since taking office in May 2009, Zuma has fired two police chiefs implicated in graft, while the head of crime intelligence has been suspended while he is being investigated for abusing state funds. Zuma’s decision to appoint allies to key posts in the security ministries regardless of whether they are capable of doing the job has now backfired, said Paul Hoffman, a lawyer who heads the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.

“Everybody leading the criminal justice system is part of team Zuma,” Hoffman said in an Aug. 17 phone interview from the southern city of East London. “The question that begs is what did Zuma think he was doing to let the management of the police get into such a state that this kind of response to provocation was necessary?”

Mac Maharaj, Zuma’s spokesman, didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment. Zuma cut short a trip to Mozambique on Aug. 17 to visit the scene of the conflict, which the government initially described as a labor dispute. He said a commission of inquiry will be appointed to investigate and urged the nation against seeking blame and recrimination for the police’s actions.

Automatic Weapons

The shootout, triggered when police tried to disperse crowds of striking workers armed with spears and machetes, was broadcast on television. The images of police using automatic weapons and rifles against the workers drew widespread condemnation, including from opposition political parties, human rights groups and labor unions.

“The high number of deaths and injuries after police opened fire on protesting mine workers is shocking and shows an appalling disregard for human life,” Noel Kukutwa, southern Africa director for Amnesty International, said in an e-mailed statement on Aug. 17. “The circumstances leading to the resort to prolonged firing of automatic weapons and live ammunition has to be urgently investigated.”

The killings may hurt Zuma’s chances of retaining control of the ruling party and by extension a second term as the nation’s president in 2014. The ANC’s youth wing has been leading a campaign for Zuma to be replaced by his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe.

Corruption Allegations

“This incident is likely to be used against Jacob Zuma in the run-up to the political contest” to lead the ANC, Nic Borain, a Cape Town-based political analyst at BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities said on his weblog. “It might not be strictly fair, but the narrative is compelling, and Zuma’s enemies and competitors will make everything they can of his vulnerability here.”

Platinum for immediate delivery gained 5.3 percent to $1,474.25 an ounce last week, the biggest weekly increase since January. Lonmin shares plunged 15 percent to 639.5 pence in London in the same period as output was disrupted, while the rand dropped 2.7 percent.

Zuma, a former intelligence operative, was fired as the nation’s deputy president in 2005, after he was accused of graft. He staged a political comeback to win control of the ruling African National Congress in 2007 from Thabo Mbeki. He was appointed president in May 2009, three weeks after prosecutors abandoned an eight-year bid to charge him for taking 4.07 million rand in bribes.

‘Poorly Equipped’

Policing shortcomings under the Zuma administration are illustrated by high crime levels. In the 12 months through March 2011, there were 15,940 homicides and 56,272 rapes.

“The police’s top leadership is poorly equipped to deal with these kinds of protest action,” Piet Croucamp, a politics lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, said in an Aug. 17 phone interview. Zuma “doesn’t take leadership responsibility and doesn’t understand the complexities of modern politics.”

Zuma will need to act decisively by firing Phiyega and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Cronje said.

“I cannot see how, in a civilized society, a police commissioner and police minister can keep their jobs after more than 40 people died,” Cronje said. Zuma “isn’t showing leadership.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at; Jaco Visser in Johannesburg at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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