South Africa

Dying on the thin blue line

By Rebecca Davis 16 October 2012

Three police officers have been killed on duty in the Western Cape while in the past week. They will be added to the 92 officers killed in South Africa between April 2011 and March this year. That figure might seem high, but the number of police killings in this country has actually been on a steady decline since the late 90s. By REBECCA DAVIS.

“Another police officer killed last night,” tweeted Lead SA on 13 October. “They die protecting us & our country’s laws. A police officer is killed every 10 days. Terrible.” Lead SA is not correct – a police officer is not killed “every 10 days” in South Africa. The correct figure is more like one every 4 days, if we use the most recent available figures. Lead SA presumably got its numbers from a comment made by national police commissioner Riah Phiyega in mid-August. “At least six officers have been murdered while on duty in the past 60 days that I have been in office. Statistically, that means one is killed every 10 days,” she said. Well, yes, but only for that particular 60 day period. The picture is worse when aggregated over a year.

And in the Western Cape it has been a particularly bad week for the police. There have actually been four police officer deaths within this period in the province, although one of these – constable Andrew Donovan, 35 – was the result of natural causes. On Wednesday, Metro Superintendent Mphumelelo Xakekile, 50, was shot in Khayelitsha after having pulled over a taxi to issue a ticket. Xakekile, who had given 10 years service to the force, was shot in the arm and chest by two men who the taxi driver claimed had run out of the bushes nearby and began firing. He died on the scene.

On Friday night, police officers Phindiwe Nikani, 26, and Mandisi Nduku, 27, were attacked while sitting in their parked police van in Madiba Square in Imizamo Yethu, near Hout Bay. Nikani, who had been due to get married this year, died at the scene. Her colleague Nduku was taken to hospital where he was initially declared brain dead, but he died in hospital on Sunday. Eyewitnesses told the Sunday Argus that they witnessed a man approaching the van to shoot the constables in the head before running away.

Justice has moved swiftly in both cases, perhaps aided by generous financial incentives for information. Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille pledged a R50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Xakekile’s killers, saying: “It is a sad day for the city and we are forced to ask what has gone wrong in our society.” Following the shootings of Nikani and Nduku, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille on Saturday added a R70,000 reward for information about their deaths. Speaking at the DA’s provincial leadership congress, she called for a moment’s silence for their deaths, and asked: “What kind of society murders the very people who are there to protect them?”

By Monday morning arrests had been made in both cases. Two men were initially arrested on suspicion of killing Xakekile, with one released and the other retained. Sandisile Ncapayi, 18, was allegedly seen running from the scene with a firearm in his hand, and it was reported that he had admitted to a witness that he had robbed and shot a police officer. In the case of the Hout Bay killings, a 28 year-old man from Namibia was arrested and will appear in court later this week.

At this stage, motives for both killings seemed unclear. In a 2011 paper for the Institute for Security Studies, Gareth Newham noted that attacks on police while on duty generally came during quite specific situations. “Police on duty were most at danger when trying to make an arrest and as a result of premeditated attacks, such as when criminals ambushed police officials to steal their firearms or to assist in the escape of a person from police custody,” he wrote.

But neither of the Western Cape cop killing cases seemed to fit this bill. The Khayelitsha attack could not possibly have been a premeditated attack, since Xakekile had pulled over a taxi to issue a fine, though it does seem as if a robbery may have resulted. In the case of the Hout Bay killings, robbery seems not to have been a motive, although details are still hazy. Incidents of police deaths often rise in areas where there is a rise in organised crime networks, where “turf wars” can result for control of a territory. There is too little information yet to indicate whether the Western Cape killings may be attributable to factors like this.

There are other, more mundane causes of police deaths while on duty – namely, often, a failure to wear a bullet-proof vest, which are sometimes unpopular because they are seen as not comfortable or user-friendly. However, in the case of the Hout Bay killings, Captain Frederick van Wyk told the Daily Maverick that the murdered police officers were wearing their vests at the time. They weren’t much use in supplying protection against a bullet to the head delivered at point blank range, however.    

Speaking in August in response to the spate of cop killings within the previous 60 days, Gauteng Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros said police deaths had nothing to do with equipment or training. “I have been to almost all the scenes where police were killed. We find that they are ambushed while trying to do their work,” he said. 

In the wake of the week’s murders, Western Cape Police Chief Arno Lamoer said that an attack on a law enforcement official is “an attack on the state”. With public distrust of the police reaching high levels, however, some will be asking whether an attack on a law enforcement official may be an attack on the South African Police Service, broadly construed. Long before Marikana, in June this year, a survey by Pondering Panda found that the majority of South Africans between 18 and 34 polled had lost confidence in the police; 62% said they believed the police were becoming more corrupt, and 66% said they did not trust the police to come to their aid in an emergency.

It is important to note that figures for police murders have actually dropped since the transition to democracy. In 1994, 265 officers were killed. By 2000, this figure was down to 178. Newham reported a blip in 1998, which saw the highest number of police killings, at 265, since democracy. Erstwhile Safety and Security Minister Sydney Mufamadi established a committee to investigate the killings and safety improvements. Among their surprising findings was that two thirds of police officials were actually killed while off duty. After a new directorate for police safety was established, the number of police deaths had fallen to 94 by 2005.

Last year, after another spate of killings, Police Chief Bheki Cele railed against police murders. “A policeman should not die with his gun in his hand,” he said, at a funeral for a murdered policeman. “Your job is to arrest criminals and if someone makes your job difficult, make sure it is not you that will be killed.” But some will say that this hard-line attitude – the “shoot to kill” mentality – is precisely what creates the hyper-violent environment that produces police killings. 

If criminals believe themselves to be more likely to be killed than arrested, Newham noted, they are far more likely to arm themselves heavily and shoot at police when under threat. In this case, as in so many other cases, violence tends to beget violence. DM

Read more:

  • “Zille condemns cop killings,” on IOL
  • “How to stop police brutality and the killing police officers in South Africa,” by Gareth Newham
  • “Cops have bad rep,” on the Sowetan

Photo: Police look on as they patrol the scene where the shooting of striking miners occurred on Thursday outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, August 17, 2012.  REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko 


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