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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid