South Africa's War On Crime Claims Innocent Victims

South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world, and the nation's top cop says police should be allowed to use "deadly force" against criminals. The government is particularly keen to get control of crime before South Africa hosts next year's World Cup soccer championship.

But what is widely being called the government's "shoot-to-kill" policy is being blamed for the recent murders of innocent people, including the recent shooting death of a 3-year-old boy.

At the funeral of Atlegang Phalane, there was no containing the grief of dozens of mourners. They gathered to bury the boy who was shot dead Nov. 7, when a policeman fired through the window of the parked car the boy was sitting in.

The murder occurred in a township just outside Johannesburg. The boy's uncle said no warning shots were fired and no questions were asked.

Phalane's sorrowful 28-year-old mother, Mapule Phalane, says she was called to the scene by a relative, and when she arrived, she saw her child lying dead on the street.

"I stayed there for hours, and they would not even allow me to see my son. I just watched him lie there, with the cop that shot my son, and he didn't even show any remorse. He just stood there, and apparently he was drunk, and he was just eating a sucker. And I asked him, 'Why did you kill my son?' And he just looked at me like I'm mad," she says.

The police say they mistook a metal pipe the 3-year-old was holding for a gun. The officer who fired the shot has been arrested. But Phalane says she wants justice.

"I just want justice to take its course, and I want answers from the policeman. Why did he do it?" she says.

The killing of the 3-year-old happened as the government tries to strengthen the country's laws, giving police the right to use lethal force if they or innocent bystanders are endangered.

As many as 50 people a day are killed in South Africa, and police say they need to match firepower with firepower.

Fikile Mbalula, the deputy police minister, told parliamentarians that the police should "shoot the bastards," referring to criminals.

He disagrees with critics who say police have been overly aggressive, saying they must "act decisively against criminals — no retreat, no surrender, no going back — and use the firepower which is guaranteed to [them] in terms of the laws of this country."

Mbalula said bystanders inevitably will be victims.

"When you are caught in a situation of combat with criminals, you will understand that innocent people are going to die, not deliberately, but even in the exchange of firepower, you will actually be caught on the wrong side," he said.

South African President Jacob Zuma rejects the "shoot-to-kill" label and publicly stresses that police do not have a "license to kill." He also denies that he is encouraging a culture of trigger-happy police officers, but there have been at least two other deaths recently.

Police officials say civilian deaths have been on the rise for the past three years. In recent comments to police commanders, Zuma attributed the civilian killings in part to poor police training. He and top police officials also say South African police are poorly paid and outgunned. Since 2007, 212 policemen have been killed in the line of duty.

As South Africa prepares to host next year's World Cup games, the government anticipates up to 500,000 visitors for the monthlong event.

Officials appear to hope the steps they are taking to combat crime will resonate with potential visitors more than the tears of those who've lost loved ones because of it.

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