These events demand a reinvigorated commitment by officials to act decisively against violent policing.
High-profile cases have inspired a public outcry. In 2011, the televised shooting-death of activist Andries Tatane in Ficksburg was described as “a watershed moment”. In 2012, the Marikana mine massacre left 34 dead and a nation stunned. Only last week in Durban, a schoolgirl named Nqobile Nzuza was shot in the back with live ammunition, which witnesses say was fired by Cato Manor police. These events have spurred protests in South Africa and other parts of the globe.
The government’s own research suggests that police violence is on the rise nationwide. In the same week as Nzuza’s death, a report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) estimated that police assaults have increased by 218% this year, along with a growing number of deaths in custody. These include 4,047 cases of assault, 275 deaths in custody, 22 rapes in custody, 50 cases of torture, and 641 complaints of the discharge of an official firearm. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have documented similarly alarming trends.
In my own research in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg over the last ten years, I have found that many police violence cases go unreported and uninvestigated for a variety of reasons. Already vulnerable groups, such as women, the poor, and refugees, are particularly fearful of police reprisals. Even when reports are lodged, IPID remains an under-resourced government agency. It cannot take all cases, even those with merit, which fall within the narrow legal confines of evidence required to establish that a police officer acted inappropriately.
These problems can be exacerbated by ‘behind-the-scenes’ harassment of witnesses and activists, at times taking the form of verbal threats, secondary assault or arbitrary arrest. After Nzuza’s death, for instance, another young woman activist, Bandile Mdlalose, was arrested on trumped-up charges.
Mdlalose has won national recognition for her leadership on police monitoring, including The Mail & Guardian’s prestigious top 200 Young South Africans award. Members of the shack-dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, are concerned for her safety, as she remains in custody.
Another factor in reporting is that those who experience violent policing frequently are portrayed in the press as “dangerous,” “criminal,” or “a threat” to law-abiding citizens.
Tatane, the Marikana miners and Nzuza all have been portrayed as causing, or even asking for, the violence that ended their lives, which has the effect of restricting public debate to whether or not they got what they deserved. These portrayals, however, detract serious attention away from investigating reports of police violence, or any robust debate about how it might be addressed.
Some government policies implemented in recent years, rather than tackling a perceived crisis in legitimate policing, appear to back a deeper entrenchment of violence. The grisly “shoot-to-kill” policy, for instance, has resulted in numerous deaths that not even the press could construe as “criminal,” notably a toddler holding a metal pipe, a University of KwaZulu-Natal law student, and a carful of women partygoers.
Strengthening channels for investigation and legal recourse will help, but neither accurate reporting nor getting rid of a few “bad apples” entirely solves this problem. This does not suggest that the police are all the same, that they blindly reproduce the past, or ignores the fact that they work under difficult and often perilous circumstances. The truth is, acceptance of the misuse of force makes a society more dangerous for all, including police.
Careful research shows that there are many complex reasons why police violence occurs. Cato Manor, where Nzuza lived and died, for instance, has a long history of dispossession, and violent interactions with security forces.
The community became an emblem of Apartheid in Durban prior to 1994. Most recently, Nzuza’s shooting follows attempted forced removals in her community, five times in violation of a court-ordered interdict. Women in that community have been at the brunt and forefront of these struggles. Their experiences recall that institutionalised violence, even today, particularly targets the poor, women and people of colour.
The current framing of excessive force within a complex of criminality attributed to those who underwent it puts more than just reporting and investigation at risk. Inactivity, or worse, an active call for an intensification of violent policing by officials, makes the possibility of addressing it impossible.
Today, in the wake of Nzuza’s death, as the world watches and protesters gather to express their outrage and mourning, politicians in Durban can take a concrete and principled stand against these trends – the question is, however, will they? DM
Dr. Kerry Chance is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow, Anthropology Department, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.
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