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Police Sweep South Africa in Crime Fight : Security: Critics say new government has failed to stem rising violence. Raids seek to build trust in law enforcement.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dramatic attempt to stem a fast-growing wave of crime and violence, armed South African police and soldiers clamped down across the country Friday night, searching thousands of homes and vehicles and arresting 1,742 people, authorities said Saturday.

About 18,000 members of the once-infamous security forces took part in the overnight police sweep, the first since a democratic government led by Nelson Mandela was elected in April to replace an authoritarian regime that used the same police to brutally enforce racial segregation under apartheid.

Mandela’s government has been stung by accusations that it has been unable to control violent crime. Last week, the holdover commissioner of the police service, Gen. Johan van der Mervwe, warned in Parliament that the nation could slide into “anarchy” if violent crime isn’t checked.

Mandela’s minister for safety and security, Sydney Mufamadi, hailed the police crackdown as a success Saturday.

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“Many more such actions can be expected in the near future as efforts to combat crime are systematically intensified,” Mufamadi said.

During the overnight operation, the police checked more than 35,000 vehicles at 2,500 roadblocks, and searched about 3,000 homes and shops, officials said. Three dozen people were arrested on murder charges, while hundreds were picked up for rape, robbery, drug-related offenses and other charges.

Whatever the effect on crime, the crackdown was aimed at bolstering public support for the police and the government. Officials fear that reports of violent crime have undermined their largely unsuccessful efforts so far to attract desperately needed foreign investment.

Mandela has pleaded for community cooperation with the police, but the officers’ role remains extremely sensitive here. Working as a paramilitary force, the police used torture and extrajudicial deaths, as well as vicious anti-riot squads and a network of informants, to ruthlessly suppress dissent during the apartheid era.

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Although official policy is now to protect the public, not oppress it, the police have yet to gain widespread respect or trust in many black communities. For one thing, scattered reports of police abuse, including electroshock torture and corruption, continue to surface and undermine law enforcement’s claims of legitimacy.

And so far, at least in structure and staff, the 115,000-member national police force remains largely unchanged. Although the majority of constables and patrol officers are black, nearly every ranking officer is white. And although whites form only 15% of the country’s population, four of five police stations remain in white areas.

Melanie Lue, coordinator of the Policing Research Project, an independent group, said the police force must shed its apartheid heritage and segregated structure, as well as change its culture of militarism, to be accepted by the public.

“There’s a lack of understanding of human rights,” she said.

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The police ultimately will be combined with 10 separate police agencies that continue to operate in the former black homelands. Officials say they also intend to redeploy existing forces and stress greater community involvement.

Although political violence has dropped sharply since the April elections, South Africa’s rate of violent crime, especially murder, is considered among the world’s highest. With 17,467 reported killings last year, for example, the per capita murder rate was nearly 10 times that of the United States.

The murders include the slayings of at least 165 police so far this year, compared to 270 last year. An officer was shot and killed Friday in his car near a hostel in Johannesburg.

In a report issued last week, police said murders have increased by 48% and armed robberies by 97% in the last five years. Since the election, police say they also have seen a sharp growth in illegal immigration, gun smuggling and drug trafficking.

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Mandela has largely led the clamor for better police protection. Earlier this month, the man who endured 27 years in prison for leading the political struggle against apartheid even called for building more prisons.


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