Arresting a Few Policemen will not Solve South Africa`s Violent Policing Problem

19th April 2011 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The brutal death of unarmed protestor and father of two, Andries Tatane, at the hands of the South African police in Ficksburg on 13 April would have gone largely unnoticed except that it was captured on film and shown as headline news on national television. South Africans and people around the world were rightly outraged at the senseless and disproportionate violence directed at Mr. Tatane by a mob of policemen. The harsh reality is that many police officials who watching the news would not have been shocked at seeing him beaten with batons and shot at from close range with rubber bullets. Because Tatane was fighting back at policemen attacking him, many police officials would have thought that he deserved the beating. The use of excessive violence as part of everyday policing has long been the norm in South Africa. What was different this time was not only that the victim died shortly thereafter, but that it was captured on film and broadcast on public television.

The warning signs that the police are becoming increasingly violent have been around for some time. The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) annually reports on police related deaths, assaults and other forms of serious misconduct to parliament. Statistics collected by the ICD reveal that the number of people shot dead by the police more than doubled (increasing by over 100%) between 2005/06 and 2008/09, when a record high of 568 people were killed. The number dropped slightly but remained high at 524 shot dead during 2009/10. Moreover, the ICD statistics reveal that complaints of police assault with intention to commit grievous bodily harm (GBH) increased from 825 incidents in 2008/10 to 920 in 2009/2010. Unfortunately however, these figures have not resulted in any recognition that there might be a fundamental problem in the SAPS and no steps have been taken by police leadership to obtain a better understanding as to the cause of the increase or to reduce the number of killings.

Given the national and international profile given to this incident however, the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa immediately released a media statement in which he expressed his “…full confidence that the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) will, without fear or favour investigate an alleged killing of a striking resident by police during a march in Ficksburg.” A few days later the Minister released another statement welcoming the arrest of six policemen implicated in the killing and highlighting that he has been consistent in his stance that, “those who break the law must be punished.” It is unusual for the ICD to act so quickly in response to complaints of police brutality, but given the widespread condemnation of this incident and the directive from the Minister, it is understandable.

Unfortunately however, this approach where incidents are referred to the ICD for investigation is not going to solve this deep and ongoing problem. The investigations may or may not reveal whether the police officials involved acted within the scope of the law and police regulations. If it is found that they broke the law then the ICD will give the docket to the National Prosecuting Authority who may decide to criminally prosecute the policemen. If SAPS regulations were broken then the ICD will make recommendations to the SAPS that disciplinary action is taken against the offending officials. The SAPS generally ignore these recommendations from the ICD but even when they do act on them, the only outcome will be that a few officials will be held accountable. This will not address the underlying management, structural and cultural problems that are contributing to this growing problem.

The ANC was correct to call for a commission of inquiry into Tatane’s death, as this is exactly what is needed at this time. Rather than only focusing on the individual officials as the ICD investigation will do, such an inquiry should look at the organisational context within which these police officials were operating. If it does so it is likely to find that inadequate command and control was generally exercised over the officials and that the SAPS standing operating procedures and the code of conduct were largely ignored. It is also likely to find that the training these officials received was sub-standard and that they were not properly assessed as to the extent to which they understand their role and responsibilities in handling public protests. Further still, such an inquiry could note that poor strategic decisions taken by SAPS leadership over the past decade resulted in the closure of specialised units including half of the Public Order Policing units, although these were belatedly re-established for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Consequently, the SAPS does not possess adequate skills and capacity to professionally respond to a number of the challenges it faces including maintaining public order.

If such an inquiry correctly includes a focus on those who have the authority and responsibility to ensure that the police uphold the law, then the political context of this killing cannot be ignored. Since 2008 when Deputy Minister of Police, Susan Shabangu called for police to “shoot to kill”, the SAPS has been led down a dangerous path where political rhetoric urging police to “show no mercy” to whomever they choose to label as “criminals” has replaced a firm commitment to ensuring that the SAPS adheres to acceptable standards of police professionalism and the rule of law. The “police service” was rhetorically renamed a “police force”, military style ranks were introduced and a “war on crime” was announced. While the Minister of Police has implored the police to “…respect the principles of human dignity and rights” he also appears to justify police violence by warning civilians, “not to provoke or insult the police.” This suggests that at the most senior levels of government, police violence is not seen as a fundamental challenge that police leadership has a duty to contain as much as it is something that civilians should avoid in the way that they act towards police officials.

David Bruce from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation who has been studying violence and policing in South Africa presented a paper at an ISS Conference on Crime and Crime Prevention in December 2010 in which he highlights the urgent need, “… for policing which is carried out fairly and respectfully.” He goes on to argue that, “There is some evidence ‘that the manner in which people are treated by agents of the criminal justice system contributes not only to respect for [the criminal] justice [system] but to respect for the law itself’. Essentially this means that people are more likely to voluntarily obey the law if they believe that agents of the criminal justice system will act towards them in a fair way.” This is an insight that the current leadership would do well to heed.

The Mail & Guardian recently quoted a government insider as stating that President Jacob Zuma had appointed General Cele to show South Africans that “police must be feared and respected”. However, fear does not necessarily bring respect. If one listens to the public outrage about this killing one would be hard pressed to find many people expressing respect for the police and far more likely to hear expressions of police disdain, even hate. However, state policing can be respected only if government changes its militant approach to policing and recognises it for the professional craft that it should be. Given that many of the problems currently facing the SAPS stem from decades of poor leadership and bad strategic decisions, effective change will need to be guided by an independent commission of inquiry that specifically focuses on the managerial, structural and cultural challenges that need to be addressed to professionalise the organisation. Until this happens, the tragic killing of Andries Tatane will not be the last such policing related incident to shock South Africa.

Written by Gareth Newham, Head of the Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria Office