JOHANNESBURG // As befits a man appointed to try to deal with one of the world's highest crime rates for a country not at war, South Africa's new police chief does not mince his words. Bheki Cele, 57, formerly the provincial safety minister in KwaZulu-Natal, President Jacob Zuma's home province, has a penchant for panama hats - he is said to own 48 - and a tendency to shoot from the hip, verbally at least.
At the press conference announcing his new position, he stood by previous statements backing the use of force by the police. "I stuck with section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977," he said. "Deadly [force] means you will die. You can't be soft and you can't be moving around kissing crime. You need to be tough because you're dealing with tough guys. Cowboys don't cry. We will just fight crime."
A cartoon in the Star newspaper showed him brandishing two pistols and a defiant expression, asking: "Any questions?" A former member of the ANC's military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe, Mr Cele was trained as a guerrilla in Angola before being captured in 1987 when he returned to South Africa and was imprisoned on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held. In 1999 he was caught up in an ambush in Richmond, in KwaZulu-Natal, after a rival had been murdered amid turmoil.
It is not clear whether he personally opened fire on his group's attackers, but in an eyewitness account given by the town's then mayor, Andrew Ragavaloo, in his book Richmond, Living in the Shadow of Death, Mr Ragavaloo writes that Mr Cele "had displayed extremely agile reflexes", reacting "with swiftness and dexterity" as the shoot-out ensued. "I saw some of them [ANC bodyguards] rolling on the side of the road and firing at the same time," the passage reads. "Cele was crouching on the side of the road on his haunches. I could see that he was not injured."
Mr Cele has taken legal action to refute claims by the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party that, when he was still a minister, he personally wielded a gun during unrest at a rally in Nongoma this year. His gung-ho style provokes concern among liberals. Moreover, according to official statistics, KwaZulu-Natal recorded 258 deaths in police custody and as a result of police actions in 2008-9, more than any other province.
But in the face of endemic crime - an average of 50 people are murdered every day in South Africa and 130 women raped, according to official figures - a tough approach to law enforcement will be welcomed by many South Africans. It will also be in marked contrast with the outlook of the country's former president, Thabo Mbeki, who argued that the fear of crime, which is often cited by emigrating South Africans as a reason for their departure, is exaggerated.
It is the poor who suffer most. In the wealthy suburbs of South Africa's main cities, the rich live behind high walls and electric fences, their streets patrolled by independent security companies in an effective privatisation of the law-and-order function of the state. The masses who form the bulk of the ANC's support cannot afford such privileges; during the power struggle with his predecessor, Mr Zuma's promises to be tough on crime were a key part of his political platform and subsequent success.
Nonetheless, the broader circumstances surrounding Mr Cele's appointment indicate some of the challenges he will face in dealing with the crisis. He succeeds Jackie Selebi, a close Mbeki ally who was charged with corruption over his links to an alleged gangster in January 2008 and went on paid leave. That corruption allegedly reaches such high levels demonstrates just how widespread crime can be.
Moreover, it has taken 18 months to replace Mr Selebi - who denies the accusations and has yet to face trial - as the scandal surrounding him became tangled up in the ANC's own internal disputes, evidence of the politicisation of the post and an instance of the ruling party putting factional interests ahead of those of the country as a whole in its priorities. Mr Cele is a career politician and long-standing Zuma confidant. Dianne Kohler Barnard, the opposition Democratic Alliance's shadow police minister, called for him to step down immediately from the ANC's national executive, saying the move would signal that he "is willing to act as an independent police commissioner, accountable to ordinary South Africans plagued by criminals, and not just [the ANC party headquarters] Luthuli House".
In an editorial, the respected Business Day newspaper said Mr Cele had been "handed a chalice that is, if not poisoned, then filled with wine of a poor vintage that might result in a nasty hangover". Mr Zuma's government "seems determined to start a new chapter in law enforcement", the newspaper said, but added: "Cele's record indicates that while he may be tough on criminals - possibly excessively tough - and thereby get some results, he is not the impartial, experienced professional that SA really needed in this vital position."