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The black poor still bear the brunt of police brutality


Baxolele Zono is with the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

There’s been a serious rise in brutal police enforcement and killings under a post-apartheid government, and most of these acts of brutality have been inflicted on the black poor.

The relationship of the police with the black poor has been ambiguous in post-apartheid South Africa. Ambiguous in the sense that when the police are in our communities we never know whether they are present to protect us or to maintain order or to cause harm or instil fear, to torture and kill. 

Of course, there are many cases where the police have acted in an honourable way in arresting criminals in our communities, but there are also many instances where they bullied us.

It seems there’s a structured state police perception when they deal with black people.

At least under colonial and apartheid order, the black oppressed knew their life status as “delinquents” in the eyes of the racial regime that treated black people with violence, aggression, punishment and discipline. Apartheid police were not interested in investigating or discovering acts of criminality generally, but to be on hand when the apartheid state decided to harm or kill the black folks – just for the sake of being black. I use the term “black” here to refer to the survivors of white dominion, who resisted and continue to resist such oppression. 

In the period after apartheid and under a democratic government, we have come to witness almost similar state police brutality to what we experienced under the apartheid racial regime, but this time it is led by a human figure in front, with a black face. 

There’s been a serious rise in brutal police enforcement and killings under a post-apartheid government, and most of these acts of brutality have been inflicted on the black poor, who have emerged from the dark night of apartheid still being ill-treated – more even – by those who look like them. 

According to a research paper by David Bruce on police brutality in South Africa from 1994 to 1997, members of the South African Police Service faced “256 charges of murder, 125 charges of culpable homicide, 630 charges of attempted murder, 1,119 charges of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, 3,564 charges of common assault and 660 charges of pointing a firearm.” But of course, there were many unreported cases where police officers acted violently with unnecessary force and unlawfully to a point of causing bodily harm and death.

Bruce further adds, “during the three-year period April 1997-March 2000, 2,174 people died as a result of police action or in police custody in South Africa. The number of people who died as a result of police action was 1,548, while 626 people died in police custody.”

In the early 2000s, we saw the rise of similar cases, leading up to the brutal killing of Andries Tatane by police on 13 April 2011 during a service delivery protest, and the brutal killing of Marikana miners by police on 16 August 2012 for protesting for a pay raise. It was reported that 34 black miners were killed and 78 severely injured on that day.

Moreover, since the enforcement of the nationwide lockdown on 26 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced measures to be taken for the nation to curb the spread of the virus. The president directed that the South African National Defence Force be deployed to support the South African Police Service in ensuring the implementation of the measures.

The soldiers and police were deployed all over South Africa, but their presence was most felt in the townships and in the informal settlements where the majority of the black poor live.  

They beat some of us while some of us were humiliated and forced to do push-ups and some of us were taken to jail accompanied by harsh force. We wondered whether those who live in posh suburbs are being treated like us. We heard about Collins Khosa who was killed by soldiers after they found a single beer in his home in Alexandra township and we heard about Sibusiso Amos who was killed in his home in Vosloorus. We witnessed and heard about many things that happened to those who look like us under police presence in our communities. All of this is happening in the midst of the pandemic. To pose Armah’s sarcastic question: Why are we so blest?  DM


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