Opinionista Nomatter Ndebele 28 March 2017

Our democracy: Fleeing in a marked police vehicle

As a nation, we are not strangers to police brutality. In the apartheid era, many of our grandparents and parents were the victims of a law enforcement system that not only suppressed them but did so with the force of unspeakable violence. At the start of the new dispensation, however, the role of the police was envisaged to be a different one. The police were now going to serve and protect the people of this nation, diligently and in a dignified manner.

Growing up, I was told that if ever I was in trouble, my first point of call could always be the police. But now, I would never put my life in such danger. Being confronted by the police – and I use the word confrontation because in my experience it aptly encapsulates the nature of the relationship between ordinary citizens and most police officials I have seen – is peppered with hostility and centred on unspeakable fear.

The very people we should be entrusting with our lives are the people we are most afraid of.

Acts of criminality are now carried out in marked police vehicles, the people who should be catching rapists are raping our children, the people who should be protecting women against cases of abuse are the very people who are pumping bullets into the skulls of their partners. The very police officers who are supposed to get unlicensed firearms off our streets are the ones selling these same weapons to gangsters.

Not only have police officers become a law unto themselves, but their presence promotes non-accountability and reeks of corruption.

A few weeks ago at the Life Esidimeni vigil hosted by government, a family member told the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, and Gauteng Premier David Makhura that he had gone to Atteridgville police state to report the death of his uncle and request a post-mortem. The police officer on duty reportedly responded by asking the man to come back another day. “We’re having a farewell for a colleague , can you come back tomorrow or on Monday?”

For months other family members affected by the Life Esidimeni matter have tried in vain to obtain post-mortems and accurate death certificates for their loved ones. For months SECTION27 has written to various people in the police department including our acting national commissioner General Phahlane. To this day, not a single response. Over 100 people were killed and not a single person has been held criminally liable. Forty-five days. Still no answers. What are the police in this country actually doing?

Police brutality in this country knows no boundaries. Just two years ago, a group of 94 community healthcare workers, most of whom were between the ages of 50 and 70, were arrested in the Free State, bundled into police vans by police officers and locked up in cells. Their crime? Attending a peaceful night vigil after losing their jobs in the absence of any explanation by the then Health MEC Dr Benny Malakoane, himself on trial for all kinds of fraud and corruption. During eight court appearances over two years the state pumped resources into pursuing a case that illustrated that the police are a law unto themselves who do not even understand the most basic aspects of the Constitution.

Months later, we watched our children being brutalised during the #FeesMustFall protests, brutalised by a state machinery that was clueless about how to contain a rowdy crowd of angry young people without inflaming the situation. The students were shot at with rubber bullets at point blank range, stun grenaded and tear gassed. They were thrown into the back of police vans and criminalised for exercising their right to gather, protest and demonstrate. Where the police should have considered that part of their mandate is also to protect (1) the right to protest and demonstrate as well as (2) vulnerable parties, they instead terrorised students and protected their masters in high office.

Yes, I can hear the howls of those telling me that the students looted, shattered windows and so on. Nothing could justify the brutal and violent retaliation. The role of the police is to maintain law and order with more violence.

Both the political and social climate of this country require, now more than ever, for bodies of law and governance to work together cohesively to promote and protect our democracy. To act with restraint and to serve and protect our citizenry. Our judicial system cannot carry this country alone and it is the duty of law enforcing bodies to act, to support the work done by our magnificent Constitutional Court.

If the police do not act to bring to book the people who are involved in the robbery of the judicial offices, not only will they have failed us a nation, but they will have failed the judicial system. Good governance and accountability have never been and should never be seen to be mutually exclusive. Where our judicial system promotes good governance, it is the duty of the police to promote accountability. It is the duty of the police to serve, protect the law-abiding and vulnerable, to be accountable and to ensure that this hard earned democracy does not flee in a marked police vehicle. DM

Nomatter Ndebele is a journalist and communications officer at SECTION27. She writes in per personal capacity.

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