The SAPS is a central player on the front line of politics, but as it continues to lack of leadership and sees ongoing reports of brutality, not much seems to have changed since Marikana. What has changed is the increasing challenges to authority, making it a worrying time for police and politics. By GREG NICOLSON.
Three years after she was appointed, Riah Phiyega in June this year addressed an Emperor’s Palace audience on implementing the National Development Plan. She noted changes in recruitment, partnerships with oversight organisations, a reverse of SAPS militarisation, and initiatives to fight crime against children. “People are safe at home, at school, at work, and enjoy an active community life free of fear. Women can walk freely in the streets and children can play outside,” the police commissioner outlined the dream for 2030.
On Wednesday Police Minister Nathi Nhleko said Phiyega had breached the Police Act and the Labour Relations Act and was found guilty of misconduct, fraud and perjury for warning Western Cape SAPS commissioner Arno Lamoer he would be investigated for corruption. Phiyega was suspended in October by President Zuma after the Marikana Commission in June this year found she had misled the inquiry and recommended an investigation into her fitness to hold office. There could be yet another inquiry into a statement provincial commissioners released supporting Phiyega after the Marikana commission released its findings. Despite the provincial commissioners’ claims they backed their boss on their own initiative, Phiyega chaired the meeting that led to the statement and pushed for their public support.
“This undeniably embarrassed the executive authority of the police and members of police service as a whole,” said the ANC in Parliament on Wednesday on the provincial commissioners’ statement. “Their defiance of the committee directive and misleading of Parliament are serious offences that are not only unlawful but have severely compromised the trust relationship between Parliament and the SAPS. The conduct of the police management is gravely disappointing.”
The ANC’s response is the strongest indication yet that Phiyega will lose her job, and might take some provincial SAPS leaders with her, but on Wednesday there was worse news for the police image. The eight cops who killed taxi driver Mido Macia in Daveyton, handcuffing him to the back of a police car, dragging him through the streets, assaulting and neglecting him in the cells, were sentenced to 15 years in prison. The case might suggest the SAPS wants to hold officers accountable, but it’s a reminder of the brutality officers commit while they are supposed to be protecting and serving, another window into a problem exemplified by the Marikana massacre. Last week’s evidence of cops allegedly executing a wounded criminal in Brits undermines any claims of improvements in the last few years.
Judge Bert Bam in the Macia case agreed the officers have the right to use force to effect an arrest, but said the cops abused that very right. He called their treatment of Macia barbaric, said they did not show any remorse, and found they had tried to hide behind their position as police officers who make arrests, as if dragging someone behind a car and assaulting them is a standard act of duty.
As Bam was delivering the sentence, police were again setting off stun grenades and coloured smoke in Cape Town’s parliamentary district against workers protesting over bonuses and other concerns after they interrupted committee meetings. In a day and a month where the policing of protests has been a key focus, their force outside the National Assembly signalled their centrality in the current state of politics.
As protests proliferate, with municipal elections approaching and students increasingly active – entering the domain dominated by unions, civil society and the vaguely defined “service delivery protests” – the police are the first line of response. There’s a pattern to it. Being so difficult to change systems of exclusion and so hard to have grievances heard, protest is both a last resort and only option. Unless you’re an exceptionally skilled organiser with timing on your side, your protest will need acts of defiance or violence for anyone to care. So, often, the first authority those campaigning for change meet are the police, who, given the repeated patterns of protests and policing, must be present whether it’s peaceful or not.
By Wednesday afternoon the police were dominating the news again after they responded to protests at the University of Western Cape where students have continued to demonstrate around issues related to the Fees Must Fall campaign. Reports showed dozens of officers as the SAPS fired rubber bullets and stun grenades before they searched residences and arrested suspected leaders. Pictures on social media showed a few students had managed to get some of the SAPS protective riot gear, brandishing it as they faced off with the cops.
The students want both specific and systemic changes, but, as so often happens when demands are made by communities across the country, when there’s an impasse or no solution from institutions or politicians, it’s the police they will meet. Indirectly, the SAPS is also the first respondent to other crises the country faces as South Africa’s violent history, unemployment, inequality and poverty blend into crime.
There’s no short term solution for systemic challenges and the SAPS appear to be taking a more central role on the front line of politics as authorities and government leaders avoid difficult situations and increasing demands. How they respond to protests and crime, and the perceptions of the response will be key to defining South African future.
Currently, reports of brutality, aggression towards protesters, and an SAPS leadership that don’t have the faith of politicians are worrying signs of the lack progress since Marikana. Perceptions of policing aren’t defined by their successes but their failures, which are displayed as a litmus test for democracy. Currently Phiyega’s 2030 vision looks ever distant.
Responding to the protests on Wednesday Police Minister Nhleko was reported to say the police had acted with restraint and nobody had died. It’s a victory that there have been no fatalities during the student protests, but using death as a measure of success is a sign of the state of the SAPS and South African politics. DM
Photo: Some of the thousands of students and youth from political parties gather by a security fence as they face police at the Union Buildings during another day of demonstrations against fee increases at universities, Pretoria, South Africa, 23 October 2015. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.