The recent release of an IPID report showing a ‘dramatic increase’ in deaths at the hands of the police is a timely reminder that not nearly enough has been done to address the type of police brutality which led the mowing down of students in Soweto in 1976, and miners at Marikana in 2012.
Although the IPID report for April to September 2016 showed an increase in deaths in custody and as a result of police action it should be noted that, despite annual fluctuations, many hundreds of people have died at the hands of the police annually in the past fifteen years. Abuse and torture (a very serious crime) is also widespread, and under-reported.
While there are many fine, hard working professional police members, there are also far too many who continue to use apartheid tactics. Some units have achieved notoriety. Members regularly raid rural, and poorer urban, areas, without search warrants, looking for guns. Doors may be kicked open, property damaged, and money stolen. Residents are assaulted or tortured, including by ‘tubing’, i.e. near suffocation with a plastic bag, which can lead to death. The first victim of the recent Glebelands violence died while being tubed during interrogation in March 2014. Glebelands resident Richard Nzama was arrested in July 2015 and subjected to particularly brutal torture – including tubing – which damaged his sight, hearing and teeth. Initially denied bail he did not get the medical attention ordered by the magistrate. Charges were withdrawn four months later(a common pattern). At least eleven cases of torture, including of a woman, were recorded in Glebelands, but most victims did not open cases. Overt threats, and the fear of consequences, result in serious under-reporting of torture cases.
Police members are not necessarily exempt from abuse. Inspector Maharaj, a member serving at a station in northern KZN, was arrested and charged with murdering police members during an ATM robbery in Mpumalanga province, and kept for many months without bail. In an attempt to extract a confession he was brutally tortured, including by tubing, and suffered serious injury to his arm. When his family finally managed to get medical attention for him he needed surgery. He finally secured competent legal representation and was given bail. The charges against him were subsequently withdrawn and it was alleged that the malicious arrest was orchestrated by police members who were themselves implicated in the crime.
Deaths reported as a result of police action may be linked to shoot-outs in which several people are killed. While police have the right to defend themselves when under attack from well armed criminals serious questions about some of these shootings arise from reports from sources who refuse to make statements to investigators for fear of their own safety. What is absolutely disgraceful is callous conduct towards, and emotional abuse of, the families of men killed in such incidents. In March 2017 five young men were killed in an alleged shoot-out with police near Pietermaritzburg. Families of the victims were never officially informed of the deaths of their loved-ones and some claimed that when they went to the crime scene they were threatened with tear gas if they tried to approach. However, crime scene photographs of the deceased had been posted on social media, causing further trauma to the grieving families. A few weeks later a policeman giving a talk to learners at a local high school referred to same incident saying that was how they dealt with criminals and, hearing that they knew the nineteen year old victim, boasted that he had shot him and that the learners should tell his parents that. Like the apartheid police such members and their management not only have no regard from the rule of law, now entrenched in our Constitution, but are in effect emotionally torturing innocent family members of people they have shot. Management has not responded to complaints.
This situation persists because virtually nothing has been done in twenty three years to change apartheid policing culture. Since 2008 the utterances of politicians from the President downwards have reinforced it. Police are badly trained and trigger-happy, and may even accidentally kill their own members during confrontations with suspected criminals. It must be emphasised that the blame lies with grossly incompetent and arrogant and unaccountable management – which is itself an indictment of political interference. One senior management member was frank enough to admit that the country cannot afford what is being paid out in claims against the police.
It also continues because there is a culture of virtual impunity. While there were thirty convictions for deaths as a result of police actions country-wide in 2015/16 (less than ten percent of reported cases) there were no convictions for deaths in custody. IPID itself is ineffectual and riddled with problems, seemingly ignoring its own governing legislation and regulations. Almost two years after Richard Nzama was tortured no identity parade has been held – despite ample available evidence. Similarly, shack resident VM almost died when tubed by a police member sitting astride him over a year ago and no ID parade has been held. As a direct consequence of the gross mismanagement of forensic mortuary services by the MEC for Health all experienced pathologists have resigned and, without mentoring, newly qualified specialists are likely to miss crucial evidence. The importance of good forensic evidence in criminal investigations cannot be over-emphasised so justice is being defeated.
IPID also needs more independence from the police. It should have its own crime investigation scene and ballistics evidence and not need to rely on the police. Nor should it report to the Minister of Police, but to an independent body, such as one headed by a retired judge.
In 2011 Constitutional lawyer Pierre de Vos argued that instead of safeguarding democracy the police were turning into a force threatening its existence. This warning must be taken seriously for, despite the fallout from Marikana, nothing has changed. As Bob Dylan warned in his classic ‘Blowing in the Wind’, how much longer are we going to turn our heads and pretend not to see – and act against – this atrocious police brutality.

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