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 Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

Al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs