The police are in hot water again, and while the media focus on the outrage over what was almost certainly excessive force used on striking Lonmin workers at Marikana, it’s worth taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture.
The police seem adamant to generate bad press for themselves. In fact, they are remarkably good at it. South Africans are quite used to seeing media reports of police brutality, nepotism, corruption and the like. But the problem with the press’ reporting on police crimes is that events are often reported in isolation of one another, in sound bites, giving audiences the idea that they are isolated events. They aren’t.
At the moment, regular South African newspaper readers are quite appropriately outraged at what happened in Marikana. Much of the public outcry is directed at the police. Whichever way you look at it, and regardless of whether the police’s actions are eventually “proven” to be justifiable, these guys mowed down groups of striking miners with automatic weapons and live ammunition, and did not stop for quite a few minutes. So yes, SAPS, we are all more than a little angry with you. The public outcry over this event has been understandably acute and substantial. But this outrage at the police may have borne a different character were it represented differently by the press.
A different media representation may have produced a far more intense public sentiment of disdain for police actions. But current reports of the Lonmin tragedy are, for the most part, lacking in historical and socio-political context, and so the event appears to be something out of the ordinary. Without framing the story in a context of recent police (mis)behaviour, the Lonmin affair looks like an exception.
Part of the problem is the traditional format of daily news reporting. For the most part, newspaper reports focus on one event at a time only. Its only when journalists are given the time and space to really engage with an issue and to do some deep investigative reporting that a little context can be afforded to a story. But reports like these are few, and they are not where the majority of us will get our news. What is important in the case of the police action at Marikana is that this is simply the latest, and surely not the last, example of deeply questionable police activity. The mess is bigger than Marikana. In fact, it is much bigger.
For example, on 13 April 2011 a protestor called Andries Tatane was killed in Ficksburg by the police. What was most shocking about that occasion was not Tatane’s death (although that alone was bad enough), but that the event highlighted that the Independent Complaints Directorate, in its 2010 report, investigated 1,769 cases of people dying in police custody or as a result of police action. To give some perspective, that is 1,735 more people than the number killed at Marikana.
More recently, in June this year, Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) Executive Director Francois Beukman announced that about 5,000 cases of assault, murder, torture and misconduct by police officers were reported in 2011, with about 500 cases then on the court roll.
Our own lack of perspective on the matter of police brutality becomes clear when simply looking at the Marikana numbers. The sound-bite rich media have hammered on about the 34 miners killed by the police. But the 78 persons who were injured during the event get scant mention, and this figure (78) is usually only delivered in a one-liner at the bottom of an article. But let us interrogate that number a little further: 78 injured. How were they injured? Were they trampled in the stampede which undoubtedly followed the volley of gunfire? It’s hard to believe all 78 of them were hurt in that way.
What is more likely is that the most of them were also hit by police bullets, meaning that it’s only a stroke of luck that they are not also dead. Let’s momentarily assume all of them were injured by police fire (especially since the press is not telling us what hurt them). This means that although 34 people were killed by the police, 112 people were shot by the police. Then we should take into account that 194 affidavits have been reportedly taken by the IPID from miners who were arrested during the protest and allegedly beaten up or “tortured” while in police custody. If we add this number, it brings the estimated number of people killed, shot or assaulted by the police in Marikana over the past 2 weeks to a whopping 306. That is a far greater tally than the magic number 34 which the media has repeated so often, but it is the number which should perhaps hold our most avid attention.
If we simply analyse the numbers collectively and with some perspective, the picture of the Marikana tragedy looks far more heinous than what the media has led us to believe. We should all be far angrier.
But this is not a media-bashing exercise. Although we often receive news of police misbehaviour in snippets reported in isolation from one another, the media can at least be credited with doing a sterling job of keeping those snippets coming at remarkably frequent intervals. On 21 August, amid the first days of the Marikana debacle, 3rd Degree broadcast a report on a Tactical Response Team established by former Police Commissioner Bheki Cele in 2009 to tackle medium- to high-risk crimes. This team was tasked mainly with handling robberies, cash-in-transit heists, ATM bombings and similar crimes. But 3rd Degree got hold of some shocking CCTV footage of members of this crack police unit harassing patrons of a township tavern. The footage clearly reveals how police officers barge into the tavern, order patrons to lie on the floor, kick a man who is not quick enough to do so and slap a woman in the face, among other nasty things, all without provocation or reason to do so.
On 23 August, just as Women’s Month entered its last few days, The Times reported on a Women’s Legal Centre study that found 70% of prostitutes had been harassed by the police. Some of the sex workers who took part in the study told how police had gang-raped them or forced them to perform oral sex, while most reported they had been otherwise assaulted. And while a police shooting occupies the attention of the public, we should remember that on 4 March it was reported that 27,329 police officers who underwent training to comply with the Firearms Control Act failed their firearms proficiency tests.
It was the Sunday Times that alerted us to the dastardly deeds of the now infamous Cato Manor Hit Squad, which allegedly carried out scores of assassinations under KwaZulu-Natal Hawks boss Major-General Johan Booysen.
On the morning of 27 August, 11 days after the Marikana shooting, I was confronted with another press report of the police behaving badly. This one supplied a list of allegations being investigated by the IPID, including three Honeydew police officers and one from Diepsloot arrested for the murder of a suspect; a Modimolle station commander charged with assault with the intent to commit grievous bodily harm for assaulting a man asking for assistance; a Klerksdorp policewoman was arrested for murder; six Durban officers arrested for sexually assaulting a man with a broomstick; thirteen Bellville policemen awaiting trial for kidnapping and the attempted murder of three suspects and a murder related to torture allegations; and twenty Klerksdorp policemen on trial for assaulting suspects going back to 2010.
But what really got my goat when reading the article was not the list of allegations against the police, although that alone is unfathomable. What incensed me was the reported response of the police spokesman, Colonel Vish Naidoo. This chap reportedly said that though he “cannot deny rogue officers exist in the force, a fraction of that fraction step outside the boundaries of the law”. This has become the standardised one-liner we hear repeated from police spokespeople ad-nausea each time the press points out that the police have once again, stepped out of line.
Bear in mind that the examples mentioned above are only some of the instances of bad police conduct reported in recent years by the media. What about the cases the press never finds out about, or does not consider newsworthy enough to report? If we take stock only of the number of instances of police-behaving-badly represented in the press, then the mind begins to boggle with the frequency of the issue.
When police spokespeople insist that such conduct is limited to only a few in the SAPS it becomes a little hard to swallow and very difficult to believe. It is, in fact, an insult. The police spin doctors should accept that the South African public is not that stupid. The sad fact is that the South African Police Service is an absolute mess. The police are killing us.
The media and their consumers, for their part, need to picture the Marikana massacre as only the latest episode in a much broader ongoing narrative of police violence and brutality. We should not be angry about what happened at Marikana alone. We should be incandescent about all of it. DM
Dr Julie Reid is an academic and media analyst at the Department of Communication Science at the Unisa. She tweets about media issues regularly from @jbjreid and writes about media policy debates and the state of media freedom in South Africa. Julie is the Deputy President of the South African Communications Association (SACOMM), and an active member of the Right2Know campaign. She is involved in various media policy research projects, has published research in the field of media studies and edited a book on South African visual culture.