South Africa

Limpopo’s fierytale: the people vs. the police, Armageddon style

By Alex Eliseev 30 January 2014

On the day Robert McBride secured a nod in Parliament to lead police watchdog Ipid – and while more denials were heard by the Farlam Commission – news broke that officers in Limpopo shot dead two more protesters in a chaotic stand-off. This brings to eight the number of protesters killed this month alone. ALEX ELISEEV asks what it will take to make the police realise that its relationship with communities across South Africa is in a fiery tailspin.

The numbers are as mad as the story is startling: One satellite police station in the Relela village outside of Tzaneen, Limpopo. Twenty officers defending the outpost. Between 1,500 and 2,000 protesters “attacking” the station with stones and petrol bombs. Some 2,050 rounds of rubber bullets fired before the switch-over to live ammunition. Fifteen officers injured in the battle. Three of them left in a critical condition. Nineteen police cars damaged or destroyed. Two protesters shot and killed during the clash.

The images flooding your mind right now are probably closer to what South African soldiers endured in the Central African Republic rather than what police officers should be dealing with in a war-free, democratic country.

The question that pierces through all those figures is: how angry does a community have to be – what kind of hatred must be festering – for hundreds of people to come together and overrun, by force, their local police station? To try to obliterate the place that houses men and women who’ve taken an oath to protect you. We know too well the evil that lurks inside a mob, but this was an outright storming of a sacred castle.

Unlike with the Marikana bloodbath, there were probably few or no cameras filming the latest clash. The details still have to be investigated by the same organisation that Robert McBride – one of the country’s most controversial policemen – will soon be leading. But even on the police’s own version, what happened in Relela does not belong in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Granted, what happened there was not a routine service delivery protest over water or electricity that spiralled out of control. The circumstances were different. A local woman was killed and mutilated and the community wanted those responsible to be arrested. Police took a couple of suspects in for questioning but when they were released, their neighbours went on the rampage, burning down their homes. When the police intervened, a teenage boy was shot and killed. His death, in turn, became the magnet that drew the crowd to the Relela police station on Tuesday night.

Limpopo police claim that anyone in the same situation (the situation the officers were in) would have done the exact same thing. The crowd had broken through into the station’s courtyard and were out for revenge. Judging by the damage, there’s every reason to believe that the officers may have been genuinely terrified and thought their lives were in danger. They probably were. Those attacking the station were committing a criminal act. There’s also evidence that the police officers did their best to push back the mob, using thousands of rounds of rubber bullets.

But the issues here run much deeper, the main one being: how did it get to this? How did we reach a crisis which the police, and police minister Nathi Mthethwa, think they can talk their way out of? (Which, of course, they can’t).

Too much blood has been spilled. Too much horror witnessed. The list has been mentioned over and over again: Marikana, Tatane, Macia, Mothutlung, Durban Deep… For way too many people the police have become the enemy.

The cold, hard truth is that the level of violence we are seeing now is the consequence of earlier decisions. Decisions which ranged from bad to catastrophic. Remember the “shoot to kill!” and “maximum force” rhetoric spewing out of Bheki Cele’s mouth (which went viral). Or the decision by Jackie Selebi to reconfigure the Public Order Policing, leaving it in shambles. And, as a show of force, the re-introduction of military ranks.

But worst of all have been the decisions, one after the next, to send in civilians (political appointments) to lead the police. The latest, by President Jacob Zuma, was Riah Phiyega, who has so far had a disastrous run (some of it was not her fault, and some of it was).

The Institute for Security Studies – the think tank which the police loves to ignore – says all indicators show that police brutality is rising, public trust in the service is deteriorating and there doesn’t seem to be any real plan to reverse either of these trends.

Asked whether we can expect more bloodshed, the ISS’s Gareth Newham says: “I hope not. But we will continue to see growing anger and discontent and a breakdown of the relationship.”

He adds: “Warnings were ignored and now we’re seeing the consequences.”

The reality on the ground is complex. The balance between crushing violent crime or policing tense protests while respecting human rights is a delicate one. No one is saying it’s easy. Then there’s the politics, corruption, shadowy alliances and the unholy mess in units like Crime Intelligence (which Phiyega is now trying to clean up).

The time has come for drastic action. Possibly a complete overhaul of the Public Order Policing (POP). The unit needs an injection of officers and strong, accountable commanders. A message needs to cascade through the ranks that says that anyone who steps out of line, who loads up their shotgun with buckshot or fires without an order, will be punished. Officers need to be better trained. And all of this needs to be communicated to the public so that perceptions can begin to change. Maybe even hold a public commission of inquiry into the POP, diagnose the problem and fix it.

It’s time for Mthethwa to go beyond sending out media statements and praying with families of victims. He needs to take meaningful action. It’s time for President Jacob Zuma to step up. If he can find the time to congratulate Ladysmith Black Mambazo on a Grammy or the Bantu Church of Christ on its centenary, spur on the Matrics or defend eTolling, he can get stuck into this crisis. And by that we mean do something more than establish a task team. After all, the storming of a police station is about as close as you can come to true lawlessness.

Newham describes what happened in Relela as a “new development”. It’s much more than that. It’s a wake-up call, a short in the circuit of democracy. A signal that the relationship between police and civilians can’t be that of a state of war or a violent occupation. History teaches us how people, countries, respond to that.

When Phiyega visited the community on Wednesday, angry residents were shouting at her, demanding to know who gave the order to kill? She did her best to restore calm to the area, but she was up against a hostile crowd.

The police may be under attack, but they have to start earning back the trust. Showing the public that they are not the enemy. When what happened in Relela becomes a reality, you’ve waited too long to act. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at @alexeliseev

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega holds a news conference near Mooi Nooi in the North West on Friday, 17 August 2012.Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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