Shelter Investigation

Police under fire for response to gender-based violence

By Chelsey Moubray 6 December 2019

South African police try to stop protesters, predominantly women, as they breach the perimeter of the Cape Town International Convention Centre in September 2019. The protesters were demanding the South African government clamp down on gender-based violence. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

While the Commission for Gender Equality was forced to bar another non-compliant department from appearing at its Public Investigative Hearings, it did not pass up on its shot with the SAPS, tucking into the service’s ineffective approach to assisting shelters in South Africa.

On Thursday 5 December 2019, a fierce panel of commissioners narrowed in on the “systemic fault lines” embedded in the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the need for the service to tailor-make training programmes to produce police members who are qualified in their understanding of violence against women and children and fully equipped to support victims of abuse.

This was the focus during the fourth day of the Commission for Gender Equality’s (CGE) Public Investigative Hearings (PIH) into the dire state of shelters across the country and Thursday provided a stage for the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, SAPS and the Department of Human Settlements to tell the commission exactly how they were addressing this issue.

But with the absence of an official authorised to lead Public Works, the department was sent packing, a departure that mimicked the events that unfolded the previous day, which saw the North West and KwaZulu-Natal departments of social development being told to come back when they were actually prepared.

We must really express our dismay and disappointment at the response of [some of] the departments that were invited here,” said the acting chairperson, Commissioner O’Hara Ngoma-Diseko.

[The issues around shelters] have very deep roots that we need to pull out to take a radical approach… We need robust discussions and we need the time for that.”

Absent attendees remained a theme for the day, with SAPS announcing that the national commissioner would not be participating in the hearings. Fortunately, Deputy National Commissioner Lieutenant-General Bonang Mgwenya was mandated to present, and appeared with SAPS police officer Thokozani Mathonsi and the section head for vulnerable groups and victim empowerment, Director Mbali Mncadi.

Responding to the CGE’s comments that SAPS has a concerning lack of processes dedicated to assisting shelters, Mgwenya confirmed that the SAPS National Instruction does not include standard operating procedures (SOP) when a victim is refused access to a shelter based on grounds of discrimination.

The National Instruction (NI) is legislation intended to provide clear direction to police officers on how to respond to a complaint of domestic violence.

But, “a police officer may assist victims to find a shelter when they arrive at the police station,” said Mgwenya.

Commissioner Jennifer Smout was quick to correct the use of the word “may”, drawing the panel’s attention to where the instruction expressly specifies the word “must”.

Paragraph 8 of the department’s National Instruction provides that a member must assist the complainant to find a suitable shelter or make arrangements for the complainant.

In other words, Smout indicated, it is your duty to provide that shelter, or to go out and find one.

Smout addressed a number of statistics surrounding the SAPS and their notorious “failure to respond”.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) report for 2018, which provides an analysis of circumstances surrounding death as a result of police action, reveals that most deaths occur during police operations. This includes responses to a crime, arrest, negligence, handling of official vehicles, escape and deaths associated with domestic violence.

There is a table in the report for a category called ‘domestic violence deaths’ which indicates that 33 of those deaths were a result of police action, or inaction,” Smout added.

The annual police report for 2018 recorded 221 complaints against police for specifically failing to perform in terms of Section 18(4) of the Domestic Violence Act, which requires that police respond, assist and provide shelter to victims of abuse.

There is a direct link between the lack of response from your members and people dying,” said Commissioner Busisiwe Deyi.

The CGE expressed concern about claims that “victim-friendly rooms” in police stations are being used by officers to sleep in, so that when victims arrive at stations and these rooms are “occupied”, they’re forced to describe their circumstances in public reception rooms.

Also alarming for the commission were the allegations that many victims were told of a nearby clinic, but were advised that they would have to go alone.

The response from SAPS came in the form of inconclusively broad excuses, admissions and avoidance techniques.

Officer Mathonsi responded: “When we did our audit last year, we did come across some challenges and we therefore issued some directives.”

Lieutenant Mgwenya said, “If someone is not complying, then they’ll be reported and submitted to disciplinary hearings,” and: “When it is brought to our attention, we do take steps.”

The need to “report” wrongdoing was a repetitive response from the panel of SAPS members.

It becomes very difficult for us to know where to start doing the investigation without reports on specific cases where members are not responding,” said Mathonsi.

So we request specific information to do proper investigations to deal with these problems.”

Commissioner Deyi, unimpressed with the SAPS’s sidestepping tactics, highlighted that fixing specific, isolated incidents will not solve this problem.

[The CGE] is saying that there is something structurally and systemically [wrong] within SAPS that results in its members not responding appropriately or failing to treat issues of domestic violence and gender-based-violence as family matters.

There does not need to be blood before you intervene,” she said.

The need to redefine the culture within SAPS was emphasised in the CGE’s discussion of the training of South African police officers.

It is useless to say that the National Instruction is being issued.

We want to know how SAPS is ensuring the actual content and enforcement of these instructions are understood throughout all police stations,” said Deyi.

To illustrate her statement, Deyi queried specialised training and the employment of gender specialists.

[The CGE] wants to know whether you are employing… people who are going to translate issues around patriarchy and entitlement to a women’s body. All of your members must understand how these [issues] feed into gender-based violence.”

And while the SAPS assured the CGE that its members undergo basic training as they enter the service as well as regular “refresher” and “capacity building” courses, Commissioner Smout pointed out that having dissected SAPS’s own figures, only 4% of officers are undergoing this training.

This needs to be a matter of you can’t get your salary if you haven’t done this training,” she said. “If you are not able to do your duty and assist women and children then you shouldn’t be able to serve.”

Concluding the hearing with concerns around claims that certain police stations are unlawfully closing over weekends, acting chairperson Ngomo-Diseka referred back to the issue of deep, systemic fault lines destabilising the SAPS.

These police stations will be in the poorest, most under-resourced communities with high levels of violence and they are closing for the weekend?

What is it in the system that enables this type of behaviour?” she asked.

SAPS officials responded that they could only address it if they had specific information on where these closed police stations were. DM

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