In a research report entitled `An investigation into deaths as a result of police action in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Gauteng` in 2007, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) expressed a number of concerns with the high number of deaths in these three provinces. Amongst others, they concluded:
`... that there are compelling factors for the police to shoot or use other types of force, especially given the preponderance of criminals prone to violence and the duty of the police to protect themselves and the public`
`... that there are circumstances in which the police's use of force is questionable`.
Since then, deaths as a result of police action or while in police custody in these three provinces have become progressively worse. In KwaZulu-Natal in particular, the situation is serious enough for critical questions to be asked. During 2008/09 just under a third (258) of the national total (912) of deaths in police custody or as a result of police action happened in this province, representing an increase of 47% over the previous year.
Over the last few months, the media has also started to raise questions about the high number of suspects killed by the police in KwaZulu-Natal. For example, the Times Live of Jan 26, 2010, published an article entitled `Funny how suspects keep dying: KwaZulu-Natal cops unusually prone to killing their quarry`. The article questions the death of three suspects connected to the assassination of `pro-ANC` traditional leader Mbongeleni Zondi in Umlazi ahead of the general elections last year. All three were killed by the police in separate incidents and one of them, Bongani Mkhize, was shot after lodging an application at the Durban High Court `to prevent police from killing him`. According to the article it is also strange that in so-called high profile cases suspects are seldom only wounded and arrested.
This kind of alleged police conduct fits within the definition of police vigilantism, and although it may be too early to claim that what we are seeing in KwaZulu-Natal is sufficient proof of the existence of police vigilantes, these are worrying signs. In a September 2007 article by Kanti Kotecha and James Walker entitled `Police Vigilantes` published in the journal Society, police vigilantism is defined as:
`... acts or threats by police which are intended to protect the established sociopolitical order from subversion but which violate some generally perceived norms for police behaviour.`
Police vigilantism usually occurs in areas where the application of the rule of law is perceived to be inadequate or weak. The situation is aggravated by pressure on the police to show results and the belief amongst frustrated police officials that the law unjustly protects criminals. In addition, police vigilantism can also point to weaknesses in police leadership and civilian oversight that provide police officials the space to act outside the law.
At this stage it is also necessary to consider the conduct of the police within a wider perspective of general violence in KwaZulu-Natal. For example, in three of the most serious violent crime categories the ratio in KwaZulu-Natal is much higher than the national average. For murder the ratio is 47 per 100 00 compared to the national average of 37,3; for attempted murder it is 48,7 compared to 37,6; and for aggravated robbery 255,9 compared to 249,3. These high crime rates add to pressures on the police ‘to do something' and contribute to their frustration when their efforts appear to be ineffective. The highest number of attacks on and murders of police officials also happen in KwaZulu-Natal. Of the 629 attacks on members of the police during 2008/09, 257 (40%) happened in KwaZulu-Natal and of the 105 members murdered in the same period 28 (26%) were murdered in KwaZulu-Natal. This again strengthens the belief amongst police officials that they are being targeted by criminals and, at least for some, may justify the use of extra-judicial methods.
There are also particular policing challenges in KwaZulu-Natal that seem to support suspicions that control and oversight in the province is far from adequate. For example, during 2008/09 this province experienced the highest number of escapes from police custody (200), which represents 17,5% of the total and is 70 more than the year before. KwaZulu-Natal is also far behind in the implementation of sector policing, a practical form of community policing. Whereas the other provinces have established sector policing in either all or most of their high crime police precincts, this province managed to establish sector policing at only 3 of its 27 high crime precincts. It clearly demonstrates that not only is there a problem with police leadership at both provincial and station level, but also with police-community relations and cooperation - something that is considered essential to a successful fight against crime and lawlessness.
In conclusion, the level of violence in general in KwaZulu-Natal appears to be on the rise and indications are that the police find it increasingly difficult to contain the situation, let alone resolving it. This gives rise to increasing concerns that the police are reacting to the problem by resorting to extra-judicial or vigilante activity. In this regard it is obvious that urgent interventions by the top leadership of the police and of the country are necessary to address the spiralling problem of criminal violence in KwaZulu-Natal and to ensure adherence to the rule of law.
Written by: Johan Burger, senior researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria