South Africa

Licence to kill: A bloody combo of politics and policing

By Ranjeni Munusamy 4 March 2013

The death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia in police custody is the latest incident exposing the culture of violence and impunity in the police. In Ficksburg, Marikana, Cato Manor, Daveyton and other areas where the police acted with excessive brute force, there is a culture of thuggish behaviour borne out of a belief that upholding human rights does not a apply to them and that they are above the Constitution and the law. Breaking this trend will take strong leadership and political will – both of which are lacking. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Policing in South Africa has been one of the most difficult issues the ANC government has had to contend with. The old South African Police, the vanguard of the Apartheid system, was hated and feared for its reign of terror in the former black townships in its crusade to squash any form of activism against the state. Turning around that culture would take special attention, but that was not the first order of business of Nelson Mandela’s government.

In January 1995, Mandela appointed General George Fivaz as the first national commissioner in the South African Police Service (SAPS), with the specific brief of amalgamating the 10 former homeland police agencies with the old South African Police. All 11 police agencies had different uniforms, rank structures and conditions of service and were established under different pieces of legislation. Most importantly, each of the 11 had loyalties to different governing authorities and changing their allegiance to the new government, populated with people who were previously the enemy, was no easy task.

The amalgamation process was challenging on its own, and during the ANC’s first term in government, former Umkhonto we Sizwe commanders and combatants were also infused into the South African Police Service. Although the political and police leadership continuously stressed that the SAPS had to adhere to the values of the new Constitution, it was difficult to shape a distinct culture amid all the logistical and practical changes, as well as having to deal with a spiralling crime rate.

President Thabo Mbeki appointed Steve Tshwete as safety and security minister in 1999, replacing the ineffective Sydney Mufamadi. Tshwete did make more of an effort to imbue the SAPS with a single identity and new image. He constantly encouraged the nation to support the police and gave officers a sense of belonging to a country and government that cared for them. Tshwete also realised how important proper training was to giving the police the right orientation.

In a speech at the launch of a training programme on human rights and policing in November 1999, Tshwete said: “I am indeed proud to repeat an observation that all of you must have observed from the beginning of these training courses, and that is the willingness and readiness of all sections of our new police service to be active participants in the drive to entrench a human rights culture within the service and South African society in general. This is an impressive achievement.

“Our police officers, whether or not they served in the old dispensation, not only embrace the concept of a human rights culture in our policing, but are also prepared to participate in its cultivation even beyond the borders of our country. One does not, of course, deny the fact that there are exceptional cases here and there in which excesses do occur. What is encouraging, however, is the readiness of the service to distance itself from such instances.”

Tshwete went on to say: “Human rights training must not hover in the sky. It must, on the contrary, be firmly entrenched in the concrete reality of the South African situation. Then it becomes relevant and meaningful. Otherwise it can easily become, to quote Shakespeare: ‘words, words, words full of sound and fury and signifying nothing’. We must continue to train our service within the mould of the human rights culture and the tenets of our Constitution without forgetting that such training is taking place in South Africa.”

Jackie Selebi was appointed national police commissioner under Tshwete’s watch and initially fell in line with the minister’s approach. But after Tshwete’s death, his successor, Charles Nqakula, and Selebi squandered the goodwill cultivated by Tshwete. Nqakula’s denial that crime was even a problem, and Selebi’s remoteness and condescension broke the connection to ordinary officers and the difficult conditions they operated in.

Once Selebi became embroiled in controversy while being investigated for corruption by the now defunct Scorpions, he locked his senior management into an almighty war with the National Prosecuting Authority which distracted them from the fight against crime. Ordinary officers were left at sea and the police service lost its coherence. Selebi’s criminality also led to a sense on the ground that if the top cop was on the take, why should the lowly-paid officer at the coalface not do the same? The rot set in.

In 2008, a year in which there were more than 790 deaths at the hands of the police, the deputy police minister at the time, Susan Shabangu, made a hopelessly ill-considered statement that was never retracted and the impact of which may well still be having deadly consequences.

“You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and protect,” Shabangu told police at an anti-crime meeting in Pretoria.

Police officers were effectively instructed to murder people, irrespective of the law and the Constitution.

Into the fray, a year later, stepped Bheki Cele, an ANC warlord in his heyday, ready to take the police into full combat mode. Under him, and brooding Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, the police service became a force, with military ranks and a shoot-to-kill approach. Cele made the police believe they were at war, that the enemy was a band of murderous thugs lurking everywhere and that they should not hesitate to use maximum force to protect themselves. It added fuel to an already flammable situation and gave officers the impression that they had political indemnity to act with maximum violence against the communities they were policing.

Cele’s successor, Riah Phiyega, has only been in the position for nine months but has had unprecedented violence occur on her watch. As a civilian, with no experience or charisma to be able to connect or direct the police, she has so far been unable to have any impact on the culture or conduct of the force. She is clearly out of her depth and is unable to get a handle of the extent of the problem she is dealing with.

In the past 10 years, the culture of the police has been to defend and protect themselves rather than the society they serve, and this has manifested in shocking and violent behaviour.

The shooting of community activist Andries Tatane in Ficksburg in April 2011, the massacre of 34 mineworkers at Marikana and subsequent torture of others, the hit-squad behaviour of the Cato Manor organised crime unit and  last week’s incident in Daveyton where a taxi driver Mido Macia was tied to the back of a police van and dragged through the street, later to be found dead in police custody, are all the result of a general sense among the police of being licensed to kill. 

In the video footage of the Marikana and Daveyton incidents in particular, you watch the bravado in action, and there is absolutely no sense of restraint or humanity among all those involved. These are terrifying indicators of what lurks on the streets, carrying weapons and wielding enormous power over civilians.

To turn around this culture requires an acknowledgement from the police management and political leadership that the situation has gone horribly wrong and is way out of hand. It needs strong leadership to halt such behaviour. However, with regard to Marikana in particular, there has been reluctance to condemn the murders and a concerted attempt to justify the massacre. The officers involved in the Marikana killings are still on active duty and have been given the impression by Phiyega and Mthethwa that they were not out of line by killing striking workers.

While the officers involved in the Daveyton incident have been suspended from duty and arrested following international outrage when cellphone video footage showing Macia’s torture went viral, there is still no firm directive from government or the police management making clear that that police brutality will not be tolerated.

The corrosion of the police is deep and pervasive. The police are turning out to be as big a threat to South African society as crime is. Community sentiment is negative and trust levels are very low.

It would take strong, brave and decisive leadership at all levels to restore a credible police service which respects the society it operates in and the Constitution of the land. The action needed includes cleaning out the police service of murderous and violent thugs, demilitarising it, ensuring proper training and instilling a human rights culture once again. Most of all, it needs people at political and management level who understand policing and who are not prepared to play Russian roulette with public safety and human life.

What else needs to happen for those in power to realise this? How many more people must die needlessly? How many women must be raped by the very men they should trust? How much longer can this country look away as the police treat the majority of our people as members of an underclass who are fair game for abuse and willing to be ever-replenishing ATMs? Will those in power understand that the citizens of South Africa have had enough? That the very same citizens understand the difference between a PR exercise and real action to stop the abuse of power?

And will those in power ever understand that the country they purport to govern is a powder keg and that the streets of the cities and townships across the land are the arteries that will spill ever more blood? Will they ever grasp that government OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people is the only one that will not perish? DM

Photo: The police stand guard outside the National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in Bloemfontein, December 17, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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