JOHANNESBURG — 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.