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Policing in post-apartheid South Africa: the past in the present

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Policing in post-apartheid South Africa: the past in the present

Photo by Chris Snelling
Raymond Suttner

23rd October 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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For most people, the police were the face of apartheid representing force against the majority of the South African population, without whose consent the state ruled. What followed from apartheid dispossession and disenfranchisement was a series of laws displacing people or making their location in one or more place insecure or vulnerable.  It was the police who cemented this vulnerability, often with brutal beatings and killings.  At the very least they were in the forefront of the denial of human dignity to the majority of South Africa’s peoples

The police harassed people for not carrying passes, removed them from their homes when an area was designated a “white area”, under the Group Areas Act or in implementing the Bantustan policies. There was also the general harassment of black people in a number of ways on the basis of a generalised suspicion and identification of black people as likely perpetrators of crime.

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The laws were in themselves extremely repressive but the police tended to have a modus operandi that made things worse.  The manner in which many or most police conceived their role and the extent to which the repressive arms of the apartheid state had imbibed into their consciousness notions of repugnance towards black people, meant that they regarded black people as a threat to the wellbeing of whites or as representing values and practices that ran against those cherished by white people.  Treating black people as subhuman implied that being full human beings was a quality reserved for whites.

In later periods, when black people were recruited into the police force there was an expectation that they would have to prove their loyalty by even more brutal actions than their white counterparts. 

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At the same time, it is important to record that there were some within the police - most of whose names may not even now be known-who did what they could to mitigate what they were told to enforce. These included police who specifically acted to help the then illegal forces of liberation.  Some were captured and put on trial. These were heroes and heroines who need to be more adequately acknowledged.

But the generalised view of police conduct under apartheid was one of terror against black people.  The image that recurs in interviews with people recounting their childhood, some of whom saw this as formative in their joining the liberation struggle, was in seeing their fathers and mothers humiliated by police. Thus, MK veteran Matthews Ngcobo describes his father being humiliated before his eyes by the police and the entire notion of his status within the family being undermined:

“There was something that…started to worry me-there were searches…Then when you are a child you always think your father is very powerful, but when you see your father being harassed one day by other men, you see that there is something wrong.  You see that you miscalculated. Then you realise that, no, my father, there is other power that is beyond him-because when these police come at night they’re forcing, they kick the door-he doesn’t fight…So that was the worst humiliation that I experienced in my life when I grew up.” (Interview 12 October 2005, Johannesburg, in Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, Jacana Media 2008, p 110.  See also interview with Nomboniso Gasa regarding her father’s sense of powerless in his attempts to prevent her being arrested by the Transkei Bantustan police at pp 110-111.  This thwarted attempt of the father to act as “protector” of his family raises important questions relating to variable forms and meanings of patriarchy, how the notion of protection in this context was not oppressive or decorative and its undermining was a denial of a duty and capacity to protect a weaker person from oppression).

The police attempt to humiliate and dehumanise black people is one reason why Michael Dingake calls his “struggle memoir” Better to die on one’s feet! (South African History Online, 2015).

Given this history, the framers of the constitution and the founding fathers and mothers were aware of the need for a completely new police service, located within a democratic constitutional and legal order focused on the protection and promotion of human rights and the dignity of all persons within the land of South Africa.  Initially it was conceived as requiring that a civilian secretariat had oversight over the police service whose name was changed from being a “force” to a “service” in order to demilitarise it.

In this thinking, the whole relationship between police and the public was meant to be fundamentally changed and police to be understood as protectors of the public and no longer identified with oppression.  As with all public servants, the police, were intended through their actions, to be purveyors of the values of the democratic constitution.  Regrettably, this initial objective has been repeatedly frustrated and the notion of demilitarisation has been ditched.

Not only in the Zuma era but repeatedly in earlier periods, ANC politicians have incited police to show no mercy to criminals. The phraseology has had the effect of incitement to use maximum force in carrying out duties, even where there might be an option to effect an arrest or investigate the question of culpability without use of any or very limited force.  The phraseology has tended to blur the distinction between who is undoubtedly committing a crime and those who could possibly be a suspect.

The exhortation to meet “force by force” and “shoot to kill” creates the impression that ministerial backing will ensure that even if killing or use of force has been unnecessary in the sense of not being needed in order to defend the officer against attack, the officer is made to know that he or she will enjoy the full support of the minister in whatever they do.  This cheapens the value of life and celebrates the use of violence.

When Fikile Mbalula was made Minister of Police there were, initially, encouraging signs with his removing General Berning Ntlemeza as head of the Hawks and some statements he made about ensuring sensitive treatment of complainants in cases of violence against women.  But regrettably this has now been overshadowed by bluster in front of the most aggressive and often illegally violent segment of the police force.

That the Minister was “posturing” and tweeting and “clownish” should not be allowed to overshadow the seriousness and dangerous character of what he has been doing. The police are already notorious for wrongful killings, illegal use of firearms, illegal arrests and generally low and deteriorating performance in detection and policing crime.  Recently Mbalula received wide publicity for addressing the notorious Tactical Response Team (TRT).  He told them to “crush balls” at the Pretoria West Police Academy saying‚ initially in isiXhosa‚ that the units must make criminals pee and drink their urine.

He spoke during the redeployment of the unit infamously known as “AmaBerete”‚ as well as the police’s tracking unit. He said the unit must be “merciless” to criminals and return fire with fire.

Mbalula said the unit must do what they were notorious for‚ kicking down doors and dishing out dizzying blows‚ and he would deal with the courts.

“Even if you do not have a warrant of arrest‚ slap them. Break the law progressively and let me worry about court cases‚” he said to loud cheers from the units‚ standing to attention in front of him.

"We resuscitated this team in Gauteng, precisely because we want to respond accurately and decisively against criminals. I'm saying to you our men and women of the police TRT, they must piss and drink it, the criminals. Do you hear me? What did I say?" Mbalula asked the platoons of police standing before him, mixing English and Xhosa.
The officers responded in unison: "Let them piss and drink it".
(https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2017-09-29-crush-criminals-balls-and-make-them-drink-urine-mbalula-tells-cops/ and https://www.iol.co.za/ios/news/outrage-over-mbalulas-crush-their-balls-comments-11431134)

It is shocking that every Minister of Police, over the last 10-15 years or more feels the need to appeal to the most macho and aggressive elements with the police force, encouraging or condoning violence and illegality.

Not being part of this rough, tough and often ruthless group himself, Mbalula is in effect fawning over them, even though they fall under his command.  He is not focused on crime detection so much as trying to please those members of the police force, who unfortunately may be many, who resort to illegal methods, relying on force rather than careful, often tedious work of detection.

Many criminologists have shown that there has been no tradition of slowly investigating and building up a case, patient work of detection under apartheid and Mbalula is making no effort to encourage the building of that capacity now. 

Unfortunately, police were quick to act on this exhortation, arresting the wrong people for the Marikana settlement killings and making them lie in the road, tied up with cables, and sent out a press release and pictures-with the minister- about their "protracted investigation". (http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/mbalula-got-it-dead-wrong-cape-town-shooting-suspects-innocent-20171013 and https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2017-10-17-mbalula-set-to-face-grilling-over-wrongful-marikana-arrests/)

They said multiple units and "intelligence operatives" had "pounced" on a vehicle and arrested suspects whom they suggested were linked to weekend shootings in Marikana, in Cape Town, in which 11 people were killed.

In the course of effecting the arrest, one man was undressed in public to check whether or not he was circumcised, allegedly a factor in one wanted individual. 

The men were released because they had, in fact, been en route to a funeral and, they complained, even the coffin was opened by the police.

This was merely one of the more publicised cases of police abuse of power. There have also been reports of extra-judicial killings and other abuses.  But beyond media coverage one can see the perpetuation in post-apartheid South Africa of apartheid patterns of oppression. Far from the police becoming a shield, protecting the people they continue-in many cases- to be a symbol of oppression.

What is worse is that the victims of lax methods of policing, as under apartheid continue to be black people.  How many whites are stopped at road blocks?  How many whites are lying on the ground being frisked by police- “on suspicion”.  (See also “Does national oppression persist in South Africa today?” in Raymond Suttner, Recovering Democracy in South Africa, Jacana Media, 2015, pp 46-49).

The police need to go back to or learn basic methods of detection, not be seen flashing past in speeding vans, using aggressive methods. Their basic levels of efficiency and professionalism needs to be improved, so that dockets do not go missing and police stations are places where people feel safe to report crimes. 

They need to be close to communities so that instead of being viewed with hostility, they show through their actions that they ought to be trusted and assisted. That will need a lot of hard work following up clues and much less razzmatazz.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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