In this March 31 photo, Richard Mdluli, head of Crime Intelligence, is driven from court in Boksburg, South Africa. (Photo: AP Photo/Chris Collingridge-STAR-Independent Newspapers Limited South Africa)
BOKSBURG, South Africa (AP) — One of South Africa's highest-ranking police officers on Thursday faced charges of plotting with other cops to murder a rival in a love triangle, and then covering up the crime for more than a decade.
The case of Richard Mdluli, who denies the charges, is just one in series of scandals involving the police in South Africa where high rates of murder, rape and other crimes are national crises. Questions about possible criminals within the force are now further undermining morale in the ranks and confidence among the public.
Middle- and upper-class South Africans have long turned to private security companies, some staffed by former police officers. And poor South Africans have resorted to vigilante violence.
"I think people have come to be very cynical about police," said John Kane-Berman, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "Because they've seen corruption. Because they've seen incompetence. There are repeated reports of police violence, brutality. There are also reports of the political factionalism being played out in the police force."
Mdluli, who was seeking bail at Thursday's hearing, serves as the police lieutenant general who briefs the president on security threats to the nation. But prosecutors allege he threatened a man for a year "to stay away from his girlfriend," according to court records.
That man was shot and killed in 1999, and Mdluli is now charged with murder. He is also accused of destroying the coroner's report and other records to avoid prosecution.
Mdluli turned himself in last week days after a warrant for his arrest was issued. Court records show an investigation was reopened last year into the killing.
Last year, former national police chief Jackie Selebi was convicted of taking money and gifts from a confessed drug smuggler and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. And earlier this year, a government watchdog found that Selebi's successor, Bheki Cele, acted unlawfully in making a deal to lease police offices from a prominent businessman though no criminal charges have been filed.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa says the cases should each be seen as isolated. "Let's not generalize," he told reporters recently.
But Andrew Faull, whose book "Behind the Badge" chronicles the lives of South African police officers, says he sees a troubling pattern. South Africa newspaper reports bear Faull out with stories every week or so about cops on the beat charged with robberies, rapes, murders and corruption.
The police force "needs to have a leadership that's beyond reproach," said Faull, who also volunteers as a police reservist, spending a few days a month in uniform patrolling the streets of his neighborhood.
Under apartheid that ended in 1994, black officers were barred from supervising whites. Critics say the process of reforming the force has created tensions and distrust, and that too often civilians with political ties have been given top jobs instead of promoting from within police ranks.
Both Cele and Selebi were key politicians within the now-governing African National Congress but head teaching backgrounds with military training.
"We do need to depoliticize the police," Faull said. "There are too many questions about leadership in the South African Police."
The nation's highest court has also weighed in on the question of politics and police. Asked to review a 2008 move by the ANC to abolish an independent crime-busting team known as the Scorpions, the Constitutional Court said the police unit that replaced it was "insufficiently insulated from political influence."
The court said Cabinet ministers were too involved in setting investigators' priorities and determining the unit's leadership.
The battle over the Scorpions was seen as pitting one ANC faction against another.
Kane-Berman, whose South African Institute of Race Relations has for decades chronicled the country's ills and tried to encourage debate about solutions, said problems within the police had a political solution.
"The accountability comes from the politicians, who must hold the police accountable. And the citizens must hold the politicians accountable," he said. "If the citizens want to take active steps, they have to use their votes."