Justice for all

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Deaths at the hands of police: a culture of fear and impunity persists
Kyla Herrmannsen, Wits Justice Project

‘They killed him like a dog’ read the headline on lampposts along the road during my morning commute.
Then, ‘Killer cops’ and ‘SA’s killing fields’ met my eyes as I gazed over today’s newspaper front pages. The recently released Human Rights Watch (HRW) global report was troublingly correct in its assertion that human rights are “taking a turn for the worst” in South Africa. The report noted that at the center of this decay are the trigger-happy tendencies of our ‘shoot to kill’-inspired South Africa Police Service (SAPS).

The HRW report noted that “serious concerns remain about the ongoing conduct and capacity of the South African Police Service, both in terms of the use of force in general, as well as the ability to deal with riots in a rights-respecting manner.” These ‘serious concerns’ are certainly warranted. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) revealed in its 2012/2013 annual report that 431 deaths had been reported in that period as a result of police action.

While the HRW report condemns deaths at the hands of the police, even more allegations of police brutality and killings have been made. Five striking civilians have lost their lives through what some have called irresponsible police action. Residents of Mothutlung, near Brits, are quite literally dying for water – four protesters died after they took to the streets to protest their lack of running water.
Recently, Tshepo Babuseng, was gunned down at close range, allegedly by a plain-clothed policeman shooting from inside a SAPS vehicle, during protests over eviction orders and a lack of housing in Durban Deep informal settlement, Roodeport.

This morning, four policemen believed to be responsible for Babuseng’s death were arrested. In uncharacteristically swift action, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa held a press conference in the afternoon, announcing disciplinary action will be taken against 14 policemen who are believed to have used excessive force during the recent Mothutlung water shortage protests. Mthethwa did, however, deny that any live ammunition was used.

The SAPS spokespeople have been repeating the now-tired rhetoric that all is well in the police force: the brutality, they say, is just the result of a few ‘bad apples’. We are also told, over and over again, that ‘IPID has launched an investigation’, as if that will assuage the public’s rage at having had someone innocently gunned down by the very powers who are supposed to be upholding the law and protecting us.

In a response to the HRW report, Mthethwa’s spokesperson Zweli Mnisi has said, “Police officials who have committed crimes are arrested, charged and prosecuted … The results are mixed, as some officials are convicted while others are acquitted … Every police official knows that the consequences will be severe for those implicated in criminal acts of any kind.” But, Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies has revealed that only 1% of cases opened with IPID end in conviction. This lack of accountability has allowed for a culture of impunity among the police force where the mantra of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ appears to have been fully embraced.

Lest we forget the likes of Andries Tatane who died after being beaten and shot by what looked like policemen in 2011. The seven policemen charged for his death were acquitted in 2013.Then there’s Nqobile Nzuza, a seventeen year old girl who was shot twice in the back, allegedly running away from the police. It’s said one of the men most recently killed in Mothutlung was killed with his arms in the air, a clear sign of surrendering. Now, all eyes are on the AMCU strike, with observers no doubt wondering whether it will descend into a bloody battle like Marikana.

The stories get more and more convoluted as the corpses pile on – a case in point being the 2012 Marikana Massacare where 34 striking miners were killed by policemen. Though the police involved are crying ‘self defence’, recent reports revealed that extra rounds of ammunition and mortuary vans were ordered ahead of the massacre, making it perhaps more premeditated than SAPS would care to admit. Just this week, in the midst of the HRW report and deaths at the hands of police in Durban Deep and Mothutlung, Advocate Dali Mpofu called for murder charges to be brought against the police responsible for the carnage at Marikana.

People fear the police. They see policemen killing their community members ‘like dogs’, wielding guns with dangerous bravado. This is not a case of just a few ‘bad apples’ this is a symptom of a police force operating with impunity and sadly, they will continue to do so until their irresponsible actions are met with weighty and decisive consequences.

Policing in South Africa after 20 years of democracy

Dr Johan Burger and Gareth Newham, of the Institute for Security studies (ISS), write:

We know from research that there is very little that the police or the criminal justice system in general can do to prevent interpersonal crime (or social fabric crime as it is referred to by the police). The root causes and conditions at the heart of these crimes are largely outside the reach of the police and the best they can do is to improve on their reaction once these crimes are reported to them, including the efficient investigation of these crimes. The police, like many of their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have introduced community and sector policing in the hope that that would allow them, firstly, to make a bigger contribution towards addressing the root causes of crime and, secondly, to improve their presence and visibility in communities. These approaches should ideally improve police service delivery in general and also police legitimacy.

However, expecting the police to be the sole or even primary agent in relation to addressing the causes of or conditions underlying crime, is to expect the impossible and is also unfair towards the police. It is here that the multi-agency approach of the National Crime Prevention Strategy and even the 1998 White Paper on Safety and Security should be rediscovered if we are serious about crime reduction in South Africa.

For an in-depth discussion of safety and security in South Africa over the last 20 years, see the document below.

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– By Kyla Herrmannsen (Wits Justice Project), Dr Johan Burger and Gareth Newham (ISS), SABC