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Elite unit brutality reflects widespread police impunity in SA

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Elite unit brutality reflects widespread police impunity in SA

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The assault on three occupants of a vehicle by Presidential Protection Unit (PPU) security officers assigned to Deputy President Paul Mashatile has sparked widespread anger. Major political parties also condemned the Sunday 2 July attack.

The gross thuggery on display was captured on video by a witness, attracting a high level of attention across the country. The anger it has generated reflects the ire of road users, many of whom have encountered aggressive and bullying behaviour by blue light VIP protection vehicle drivers. Over the years, the South African Police Service (SAPS) VIP Protection Unit, which includes the PPU, has been associated with several incidents where citizens were intimidated or assaulted.

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This aggressive behaviour is perpetuated by one-sided road traffic regulations that oblige the public to make way for police or other emergency vehicles. This includes vehicles displaying a flashing blue light, even if they are not otherwise clearly identifiable. On major roads surrounding the capital Pretoria, there’s a plethora of vehicles of this kind.

Mashatile wasn’t in the vehicle when the incident took place. This suggests that police protection units believe they can force cars out of the way and treat road users with contempt even when not performing duties that might require disregarding road regulations.

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In a recent interview, former PPU member Rory Steyn said conduct of this kind reflected poorly both on the units and the leaders they protected. Steyn served in the unit during Nelson Mandela’s presidency and said that at the time, there was a strong awareness that ‘any action we took would … reflect on [the] reputation, image and legacy of our principal.’

Antipathy towards the VIP Protection Unit, and general disillusionment with South Africa’s political leadership, are also reflected in questions about the unit’s funding. Public expenditure on VIP protection has become massively inflated, while ordinary South Africans are under siege from crime. The resourcing of these units must be examined. But the public would probably be less concerned about security expenditure for leaders who genuinely served the public interest.

Members of these protection units likely have an exaggerated sense of importance, and behind the tinted windows of their vehicles, they largely escape scrutiny or public accountability. The video of their actions on the N1 highway is a rare instance in which their shield of invulnerability and anonymity has been pierced.

It is unclear whether these officers are subject to any form of meaningful accountability within the SAPS. National Commissioner Fannie Masemola is to be applauded for his firm condemnation of their conduct. He also acknowledged a problem with the unit broadly, saying he had directed the heads of relevant police divisions to ‘retrain’ and ‘talk’ to members of VIP protection.

But the consistent pattern of such cases indicates that more action is needed. The accountability of members of these units must be strengthened substantially to stop abusive behaviour.

And it is not simply the SAPS VIP Protection Unit that should be scrutinised. The PPU is an elite unit, and if its members are implicated in gratuitous thuggery, that raises questions about the SAPS as a whole. It isn’t only the VIP unit that enjoys this type of anonymity and impunity.

A lack of accountability for the misuse of force cuts across much of the SAPS. Existing internal and external accountability mechanisms do little to mitigate the problem. One reflection of the scale of abuses is the R2.3-billion paid from taxpayers’ money to victims who lodged civil claims against the police between 2018 and 2022. This is 52% higher than the preceding five years.

In police brutality cases, public attention tends to focus on the individual officers and the type of consequences they should face. While police brutality in South Africa occurs relatively frequently, the PPU attacks are among the uncommon cases in which firm disciplinary measures and criminal sanctions may well be imposed on the police implicated. Due to the apparently unequivocal nature of the video evidence, it may be difficult for these members to convincingly plead their innocence.

This distinguishes the PPU assault from most police brutality cases. Even other well-known cases for which video evidence was available, such as the 2021 killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba, the 2012 Marikana massacre, or the 2011 killing of Andries Tatane, haven’t led to disciplinary or criminal sanction against any of the police members involved.

This highlights not only a police culture that encourages ‘turning a blind eye’ to brutality and other malfeasance, but the broader limitation of SAPS systems for managing members’ conduct.

The abuses by the VIP unit highlight the police’s failure to address the misuse of force in a sustained and committed way. It is not just the VIP Protection Unit, but the entire police service, that must do more to win back public respect. That requires an unequivocal commitment to ensuring that the SAPS name becomes synonymous with high standards of conduct.

Written by David Bruce, Independent Researcher and Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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