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The continuing brutality of SA lives — not taken seriously by most major parties

The continuing brutality of SA lives — not taken seriously by most major parties
Illustrative image: Minister of Police Bheki Cele (Photo: Shelley Christians) | Ocean View, Cape Town crime scene (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo) | A body lies on the ground after a suspected gang related shooting in Lavender Hill, Cape Town. (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo)

South Africa has experienced a rise in violence since the last general election, particularly of murders. Voters are demanding action and leaders are spouting rhetoric. Calls for a return to formal capital punishment are being made only by smaller parties on the fringes, even as the extrajudicial killing of suspects becomes common.

Earlier this month, police in KwaZulu-Natal approached an RDP house in Mariannhill occupied by a group of men who had been accused of terrorising the local community. Police reportedly fatally shot nine men inside the house while two others escaped.

On the same day, in Mpumalanga, five people were killed during an attempted cash-in-transit heist.

Incidents like these are increasingly common.

Mariannhill community members said the nine men had committed murders, rapes and robberies.

Such violent criminality has become the daily lived reality of many people in South Africa.

In Khayelitsha, people have to pay brazen extortion gangs so their televisions are not stolen. Some young women have reported having to pay young men protection money for the weaves on their heads.

The rising crime levels are — understandably — leading to anger erupting in our communities. 

In other countries, similar problems have had huge political consequences.

Famously, in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte came to power promising he would order police to fatally shoot drug dealers and users. He claimed to have personally killed 10 while serving as a mayor.

In office he fulfilled his promise, ordering police to shoot to kill.

However, such a policy never ends with just one group of people being targeted.

Amnesty International reported that Duterte told his police to shoot anyone taking part in protests against lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

All of this came about because of popular anger at violent crime in that country. In South Africa, so far, the rhetoric from our leaders is nowhere near as heated — but it is rising.

Last week Police Minister Bheki Cele spoke to residents in Mariannhill. He said that 7,000 people had been murdered in South Africa in the past quarter and that if the police did not respond, “They’ll be simple statistics. No officer should die with a gun in their hand.”

His point appeared to be that the police should shoot first if criminals come at them with guns.

In the Marianhill case, the nine people who were killed had only four guns between them, which raises questions about the real plan police had when they approached the house.

It is hard to blame police officers for firing if they are in danger. But there will be consequences for this approach.

News24 recently reported on a case where SA Police Service (SAPS) officers in Soweto chased a car that was being driven recklessly by a young man in the early hours of the morning. Eventually, the man arrived at his home. His mother, an officer of the Joburg Metropolitan Police Department, came outside, demanding to know why her son was being chased.

When the SAPS officers said they wanted to arrest her son, she told them she was going to fetch her gun. She went inside, returned with her firearm and started shooting. The SAPS members returned fire and shot her dead.

Unfortunately, there are likely to be many more cases like this.

Still, in many communities, like those in Mariannhill, there will be more cries for the police to act, and to act decisively.


At the same time, trust in our criminal justice system has been declining for years. Considering how long it can take for proceedings to conclude, this is to be expected.

As has been pointed out many times, only about 13% of murders are successfully prosecuted. It is surely asking too much of communities to ask them to trust a system that fails so spectacularly.

The result is vigilantism and more pressure on the police to kill suspected criminals.

Most main political parties do not have detailed strategies to deal with the prolonged crime wave. While communities are crying out in pain, political parties have not made this a major campaigning issue even as they declare they will reduce crime.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

Like the cost-of-living crisis, this may be because they don’t have answers.

There is an exception to this. While violent crime has consistently risen in the past three years, in the Western Cape it has declined slightly and the DA’s manifesto includes plans to decentralise policing. 

Strangely, despite the rise in violent crime and the calls for action, none of the parties of the political centre is campaigning for a return to capital punishment.

Both the ANC and the DA refrain from mentioning it, while EFF leader Julius Malema is against capital punishment, saying: “In a system that hates black people, our brothers and sisters will be the ones that are hanged.”

Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie, however, says his party strongly supports the return of the death penalty, as do several other smaller parties with no proven levels of wide support.

ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba publicly supported capital punishment, but the party’s highest decision-making body disagreed with him, stating, “The party will not support the reintroduction of the death penalty.”

Globally, the trend for decades has been a move away from court-sanctioned death penalties. In almost all countries that have some form of democracy, the death penalty has been done away with (even Russia, with a sham democracy, has not executed anyone through a legal process since 1996).

No accountability

But the real reason political pressure may not be building in South Africa for the reinstatement of capital punishment is simply that police officers are applying the death penalty without the fuss and bother of going through a court process.

One of the reasons they can do this is that there is no accountability for it.

As Viewfinder and others have consistently reported, the system that investigates police officers, through the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, does not work.

Even when findings are made against officers, the SAPS is supposed to institute cases against them — but nothing happens.

This undermines the rule of law. There is no point trumpeting the fact that there is no death penalty under South African law when the law is ignored — particularly by the very officers of that law who, according to the SAPS, “Respect and uphold the law at all times.”

What would change this picture is what many policing experts have called for: a change in the police leadership and structure; in particular, within Crime Intelligence and in how police officers are managed.

However, changing the ethos and leadership of the biggest employer in the country is difficult. It is much easier, before an election, to tell police officers to use their firearms.

For the moment, there appears to be no political appetite to make the major changes that would reduce crime. Until there is, the lives of many in South Africa will remain brutal and brutalised. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Like all uniformed services in SA, the level of discipline has declined to a state where wearing a uniform means nothing. Discipline is a crucial part of any uniformed service, but the management of these services is sadly lacking. Putting more people in uniforms does nothing to improve levels of crime if these same people turn a blind eye, rather than doing the jobs they are paid to do. A common sight is a police vehicle speeding and not stopping at robots and stop streets, when there is no emergency. Another common sight is police ignoring taxi’s doing the same things. People see this every day so think if the police can do, it so can they.

  • The Proven says:

    Bringing back the death penalty is not the answer – numerous research studies have repeatedly shown its deterrence factor to be very low. It basically does not deter criminals.

    What should be amended is the conditions under which police can shoot at a suspected criminal – it is so restrictive that it becomes meaningless. The police simply do what they want. Its not legal to shoot at a fleeing criminal “to bring him to court” – to stop him. That is what I would rather bring back – criminals should think twice about running away – because then they may just be shot.

  • Hamish Whittal says:

    I’m certainly more anxious when the police are involved than when they aren’t. It’s not a service to the public to protect and serve. It’s a state-sanctioned “do whatever you like (with impunity)”.

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