The Police at War Once Again

By David Bruce · 4 Mar 2013

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Picture: Thomas Hawk/Flickr
Picture: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

If one wants to understand the common thread behind police brutality in South Africa, the cruelty that last week killed taxi driver Mido Macia, the massacre of the miners at Marikana or the killing of Andries Tatane, it is helpful to go back to the ANC’s 2009 election manifesto.

The manifesto largely rehashes old ideas. But in describing how the ANC will “intensify the fight against crime and corruption” there is one word in the manifesto that is relevant to understanding why brutality in policing has re-consolidated itself in South Africa in recent years. This is the word “tougher” in a sentence stating that the ANC would be “tougher on criminals and organised syndicates”.

Part of the original rational for this tough approach may be found in an address by the then-newly appointed Minister of Safety and Security Nathi Mthethwa to Parliament’s select committee on security in November 2008. An aspect of the crime problem that was cause for considerable concern at the time was that of cash-in-transit (CIT) heists or robberies. These were carried out by gangs armed with automatic assault rifles who were widely regarded as extremely ruthless. They often included former South African, Zimbabwean and Mozambican combatants, amongst their members.

In his address to the select committee, Mthethwa described these gangs as, “people who go all out to get what they want, whatever the circumstances” and who “kill whoever is around”.

Referring to the task forces and units responsible for responding to CIT heists, he then said that it would be necessary for the police to strengthen the task forces responsible for responding to these gangs, “So that they are able, on the field, to teach those people a lesson -- fight fire with fire. There’s no other way on that.”

Initially, therefore, tougher policing was publicly motivated for on the basis of a crime category that accounted for less than 0.06% of all violent crime, and 0.02% of all recorded crime.

But it would not be true to say that this was the ANC’s only concern. As the new ANC leadership understood it, the key problem was that there was not enough respect for the authority of the police in South Africa and ultimately therefore for the authority of the state.

Rather than the ANC election manifesto the document that best encapsulates the understanding that has shaped post-Polokwane policing policy is one that was issued on 11 March 2010 by Minister Mthethwa. This is the statement in which the militarisation of the South African Police Service (SAPS) ranks was formally announced.

The statement calls for an overall change in approach based on greater discipline within the SAPS. However this discipline is not an end in itself but is what will enable the police to serve as an effective instrument on the frontline of a war against criminals. “For any force to discharge its task effectively there needs to be a commander because wars are led by commanders,” the statement says. The purpose of instilling greater discipline within the SAPS then is so that police can lead what the statement describes as a people’s war against criminals.

People’s war was adopted as a strategy by the ANC following a study tour to Vietnam in 1978. According to Stephen Ellis’s recent book, External Mission, it marked a shift towards an approach in terms of which military action was integrated into a political strategy intended to mobilise “the bulk of the population into the war effort”.

In the circumstances of the fight against the apartheid security machine, people’s war may have been a necessary choice for the ANC. Nevertheless people’s war in itself has taken a considerable toll in South Africa. As Ellis says, it damaged “the fabric of many already ragged communities” in a manner that that continues to make itself felt.

By equating the task of addressing crime not only with war but with people’s war, Mthethwa is therefore re-invoking what a 2011 Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation report, “The Smoke that Calls”, describes as “repertoires of violence” from the days of mobilisation against the apartheid system. Implicit to this is the attempt to invoke the emotions of war. Criminals are represented as wicked and senseless, as appropriate objects of the emotions of hatred associated with war and as an enemy to be destroyed.

Having now been told that they are authorised to engage in a war on behalf of the people, it is clear to police that force is the principle instrument that they must use if the enemy is to be defeated. Whereas beforehand the police and the ANC were enemies, they are now united for the common purpose of waging war. The adversarial sensibilities that shaped the brutal wars of the final years of apartheid are now united in the realm of government crime policy against a new mutual enemy.

At the same time as being “fierce towards criminals”, the March 2010 statement says police are to be “lenient to citizens’ safety”.

Not only are criminals implicitly not citizens, but a key premise that underpins this war is that police have an infallible ability to distinguish criminals and citizens from each other. Determinations as to whether one is regarded as a criminal are of course made only by the police. Any person who finds themself on the other side in a dispute or disagreement with the police is liable to be classified as a criminal and therefore as part of the enemy. Pule Thulo, one of the residents of Zamdela whose brother was allegedly killed by police during violent protests in the area in January 2013, is said to have remarked to a journalist, “the police did not view the community as human beings.”

In response to the crime problem the post Polokwane ANC leadership has provided not policies that are more sophisticated, but the type of response that might have been expected from a caricature of a prototypical military strong man.

As under apartheid, the police have once again been mobilised into a war except that now the war is being conducted in the name of the people. But even though police are now acting in the name of the people, communities continue to be ravaged by the damage that the war inflicts. In practise, the victims are not just criminals but many others and particularly young men on the margins of South African society.

Notwithstanding the fact that they have given their open support for more aggressive use of force on various occasions, President Jacob Zuma, Minister Mthethwa and others have professed their loyalty to the Constitution and to holding police accountable for unlawful actions through the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). But this is done largely for the sake of appearances. In training police are told to disregard principles of restrain in using force as long as they have a pretext for doing so. Police who commit acts of brutality remain on duty irrespective of the weight of the evidence against them, as reflected in the case of detective Hilton Botha initially appointed to investigate the alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius notwithstanding the seven charges of attempted murder that he faces.

The authorities profess dismay at the handful of incidents that come to public attention, but these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Allegations of brutality are generally treated by police management as of little interest. The SAPS internal environment is one that is highly permissive of brutality as long as it does not cause negative publicity for the organisation. Many police  regard it as a necessary part of getting the job done and there is not widespread understanding within the SAPS of how police can be effective without recourse to brutality.

There is therefore little enthusiasm for holding police  accountable to the law. There is also little that the IPID on its own can do without having the full weight of SAPS management support behind it. As custodians of the law, SAPS members who engage in acts of brutality are therefore largely untouchable.

Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in crime and policing.

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