MANDY WIENER: Time to rethink VIP protection for politicians
At 3am on Monday, on a notorious stretch of the N3 between Vosloorus and Heidelberg, Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga was held at gunpoint and robbed.
She was accompanied by two armed bodyguards and her brother at the time.
The tyre of the vehicle they were travelling in burst and the protectors had pulled over to fix it when three balaclava-clad men appeared and robbed them. Chikunga was ordered out of the vehicle by the gunmen.
“It was traumatising, devastating and bad,” said Chikunga in parliament later that day.
The response to media reports about this incident has struck me as largely insensitive. There is a degree of schadenfreude about it.
I’ve seen many comments saying that at least this incident allows cabinet ministers to experience first-hand the high crime rate in the country. Others have argued that they had been held up on this exact stretch of highway and nothing has been done about it so this incident may expedite police action. Also, if criminals can target cabinet ministers, then no one is safe.
Comments on social media largely express public frustration with the high crime rate, compounded by the apparent indifference of political leaders. They also illustrate dissatisfaction with special police protection for politicians and whether this is necessary.
In this incident, the police officers tasked with protecting the minister were relieved of their firearms and were not able to protect their principal. They did not do a particularly good job of protecting Chikunga. Perhaps there is an argument that because she was not harmed, and the situation did not escalate, they did indeed do their jobs.
Police Minister Bheki Cele has also questioned whether there may have been inside assistance to the criminals.
“My problem is that it looks like there was some form of information that they had. This shows that we are all victims of crime in this country,” Cele said.
This casts doubt on the training and the capabilities of the members of this VIP unit and how effective they truly are at keeping cabinet ministers safe.
Earlier this year, eight members of Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s VIP protection unit were criminally charged after video footage emerged of them assaulting civilians on the N1 highway in Johannesburg.
This further entrenched the perception that members of this unit have a culture of entitlement, disregard for members of the public and are heavy-handed and abusive in their approach.
I have personally experienced, on several occasions, how aggressive members of this unit can be, acting with no regard for the rights and dignity of journalists.
There is also a sentiment that they are an unnecessary perk for politicians and there is no real necessity for individuals, just by holding political office, to require such a high level of security.
A disproportionate amount of money is spent by the government each year on the VIP protection unit.
The SAPS budgeted R3.67 billion for protection and security services for the 2023/34 financial year and of this, R1.97 billion is specifically allocated to VIP protection. According to reports, this covers the cost of around 6000 officers who are required to protect 62 dignitaries including cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, premiers and the parliamentary speaker and deputy.
This budget has exponentially increased over the past two decades. But Willem Els from the Institute for Security Studies was recently quoted as saying that the threat level has not increased to necessitate that expenditure.
“What we have noticed is that it seems like these convoys became a status symbol for politicians. The better your security convoy, the higher the security alert around you, the more important you as an official become in your own eyes and the eyes of those around you. That is just uncalled for,” he told Newzroom Afrika.
Risk assessments need to be done to determine if each politician requires such a high level of protection. Certainly, there is a need to protect the President and Deputy President of the country but how much of a threat is there to members of local or provincial government? In some instances, the risk could be considerable. There is an alarming rate of political assassinations in South Africa, and this could certainly necessitate increased protection. Similarly, there are more and more instances of extortion networks carrying out targeted killings.
There are without a doubt cases that require a high degree of security. This also requires VIP protection officers to be highly trained, skilled, and resourced. If they are going to be allocated a considerable budget, then they need to ensure they are effective and can do their jobs properly.