No end in sight for police brutality in South Africa
by Justice Malala
People thought they would see no more peaceful protesters shot by police, but the force is turning violent again.
In July 2009 South Africa's then new police commissioner, Bheki Cele, told a newspaper he wanted the law to be changed to allow police to "shoot to kill" suspects without worrying about "what happens after that".
Two months later a young woman, Olga Kekana, was going out with three friends in a Pretoria township when she was shot through the head. The car she was travelling in was "mistaken" by police for one driven by car hijackers.
Survivors said the police had given no warning. Eight policemen opened fire. The car Kekana was in had 13 bullet holes. The police fled the scene and did not help the injured.
When news broke on Thursday morning that Hilton Botha, the lead detective in the prosecution of Oscar Pistorius, was facing attempted murder charges after firing at a minibus taxi carrying seven passengers in 2009, many began once again to wonder about the state of the South African police.
So soon after the horrific shooting of 34 striking mine workers at Lonmin's Marikana mine last August by police, the Botha charges draw attention to this question: is democratic South Africa's police service turning into a violent force akin to its apartheid predecessors?
When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, the police were a paramilitary force. In a symbolic change, they were renamed the Police Services and began a process of demilitarisation.
However, in 2009, when Jacob Zuma was elected president, ministers started speaking of a return to "tough policing" and called for police to "shoot to kill". That year the re-militarisation of the police began.
The results are evident everywhere. Andries Tatane, a mathematics teacher and community activist, was attacked at a peaceful protest march in 2011 by 12 policemen who beat him with batons, kicked him and shot rubber bullets into his chest at close range. He died.
Evidence is mounting that many of the Marikana dead were shot while fleeing, and that at least 14 of them were shot and killed 300 metres from where the initial massacre took place. Police have already admitted at the continuing Farlam Commission that they planted weapons near the dead miners.
"The safety of the public is not negotiable. Don't be sorry about what happened," the current police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, told police afterwards. She said this as 28 members of a notorious police unit were appearing in court on more than 70 charges, including murder.
The Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria has reported that the number of people shot dead by police doubled in the four years to 2010. Deaths in police custody or resulting from police action numbered 860 in 2009-2010, disturbingly higher than the period 2003-2008, when they averaged 695 a year.
The police, of course, claim they are the victims, pointing to killings of police. This has been the narrative put forward to defend their dubiously "tough" stance against citizens.
Yet figures for police murders have dropped since 1994, when 265 officers were killed. The figure declined to 178 in 2000. Only 92 police officers were killed in the 12 months to March 2012. However, the government continues to paint a picture of a police service under siege, with Cele saying in 2011: "A policeman should not die with his gun in his hand."
Cele was later fired by Zuma, but not for this or other outrageous statements.
Are incidents of police brutality and trigger-happiness going to stop any time soon? Not likely. The ANC emerged from various planning meetings in January 2013 with a warning to protesters such as Andries Tatane. ANC leader Ngoako Ramathlodi, a deputy minister of prisons, said the government would use an "iron fist" to deal with the "seas of anarchy" emerging in South Africa.
On 14 February, Zuma announced a range of "tough" measures to deal with citizens protesting against poor services.
Marikana will not be the last time we see evidence of a police service going off the rails. More blood will be spilt by the police here. In 1994 we thought we had turned our backs on such incidents. We were wrong.