News / Africa

South African Police Face Accusations of Brutality

A South African man with his hands tethered to the back of a police vehicle being dragged behind as police hold his legs up and the vehicle apparently drives off, east of Johannesburg, Feb. 26, 2013. The man died of his injuries.
A South African man with his hands tethered to the back of a police vehicle being dragged behind as police hold his legs up and the vehicle apparently drives off, east of Johannesburg, Feb. 26, 2013. The man died of his injuries.
Solenn Honorine
The image of South Africa's police has been tarnished by several high profile cases of alleged brutality.  Nine policemen are currently awaiting trial for dragging a Mozambican taxi driver behind their vehicle.  He later died in his cell.  Last August, police opened fire on a group of striking miners in Marikana, killing 34. Despite legal reforms in the past 20 years since the end of apartheid, mistrust still exists between South Africa’s citizens and the police.  
“This morning they [police] were shooting at us, and we were hitting them with stones," said a protester. "Because there's nothing we can do.  We have to do something if they're shooting at us.”
The 8,000 residents of Thabo Mbeki settlement are staging one of many so-called service delivery protests, asking the government to provide houses and electricity.  But the only institution facing them on this day, at the receiving end of their anger, is the police.
The Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies (ISS) notes that the police are increasingly being called upon to intervene in these situations, where they neither created the problem nor can they solve it.  As a result, the police have become the face of a government failing its citizens and that, says ISS, exacerbates a deep distrust of the police.

Andy Mashaile is the provincial chairman of the Community Policing Forum, an institution consisting of elected members of the public whose function is to help and supervise the police.  He says that in cases where he had to play middle man between the police and the communities, like in Daveyton, where the Mozambican taxi driver was killed, emotions can run very high.

“One: we don't raise false hopes," said Mashaile. "Two: we don't incite communities.  Three: we don't get police officers killed.  Four: we don't get members of the community killed by police officers who might be acting out of fear, defending their own lives.  Yes, it is a challenging job, very difficult.”

By any standard, South Africa is a very difficult environment to police.  Economic disparity persists some 20 years after the end of apartheid and anger has grown.  Crowds can quickly turn into mobs, and criminals often resort to extreme violence.  Last year, 93 officers were killed in the line of duty.
Criminologist Elrena Van der Spuy from Cape Town University says that politicians have responded with increasingly tough language and instructions to the police.  In 2008 for example, she says, the then security minister told policemen “I want no warning shots.  You have one shot and it must be [a] kill shot."

“The political climate itself then has created a more fertile state of conditions within which police's excessive use of force has taken on almost a systemic feature rather than just located in some wayward individual cops," Van der Spuy said.
The actions of the police are at odds with the post-apartheid legal guarantees for a “police force of the people” rather than one that represses black discontent.  The police force today is subjected to multiple layers of civilian oversight: from the public, to the Parliament, to the human rights commission.

But Van der Spuy says that is not working in practice.  

“These institutions of oversight rely on tight command and control," she said. "And if you don't, at police station level, have senior commanders who are able to exert control over members, that means that whatever external mechanism you have will have very limited impact because, on the ground, people are not properly supervised."
Experts say this problem lies, in part, in South Africa's turbulent past.
When the African National Congress took power in 1994 it had to purge a notoriously violent force, and change the color of its officers.  But because no black citizens could rise through the ranks during the apartheid years, the overhaul resulted in a loss of police expertise.
Last year, the Independent Police Investigation Department, or IPID, whose powers and independence were strengthened in 2010, received more than 5,000 complaints ranging from corruption to assault or deaths in detention.  But its spokesman, Moses Dlamini, says this high number is also the result of a greater transparency and accountability.

“They can't be compared to the police of the past," said Dlamini. "If my father was killed by the police in the past, there was no IPID that I could go to for an investigation to be done, you know?”

Only 545 cases lead to judicial actions last year.  Dlamini says that this relatively small proportion shows that most of the complaints against police are unsubstantiated.  But he acknowledges that some officers do what he calls "appalling things," and that distrust between the public and the police runs deep.

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs