Violent tactics undermine public trust in police

By Published On: 10th December 2018

The National Planning Commission (NPC) noted this particular issue with regards to policing in South Africa in their 2011 report:

“The decision to demilitarize the police force, moving away from its history of brutality, was a goal of transformation after 1994. The remilitarization of the police in recent years has not garnered greater community respect for police officers, nor has it secured higher conviction rates. Certainly, a paramilitary police force does not augur well for a modern democracy and a capable developmental state. The Commission believes that the police should be demilitarized and that the culture of the police should be reviewed to instil the best possible discipline and ethos associated with a professional police service.”

This issue is especially distressing. It is the responsibility of any police service (whether it is in South Africa or not) to foster safety and security within the communities of its state.

Moreover, our South African Police Service (SAPS) should be especially vigilant towards militarisation due to our not-so-distant past. It has deep roots in the pain and suffering of all surviving apartheid victims and their families. However, this has not been the case for the SAPS as the above quote suggests.

In the field of transitional justice this can only be described as a re-traumatisation of an already vulnerable South Africa populace, particularly our black majority.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was South Africa’s internationally lauded form of transitional justice. However, within the borders of our state many citizens view our transformation steps as half-baked and inefficient.

The full blame cannot fall onto a TRC that was restricted by many limitations due to the act and timeframe it was set up in. When it comes to the SAPS the TRC did what it was mandated to do – make recommendations. It was then the responsibility of the government to actualise these policy recommendations.

Paragraph 71 of the TRC report Volume 5 (published in 1998) states that during apartheid, “[u]ndue use of force by [the apartheid] security forces in controlling crowds was one of the most significant causes of deaths and injuries reported to the Commission”. It was recommended that specific attention should be paid to the way in which the new SAPS would approach public order distress.

Section 17 of the SAPS Act (1995) further determined that a specific Public Order Policing (POP) unit would be set up.

Most protests end in violence

Despite having the recommendations as well as the legal instruments, the NPC was still reporting the same violent and militant police behaviour that the TRC highlighted 16 years prior.

Fast-forward one more year to 16 August 2012 and we see the death of 34 miners in Marikana during a wage strike at the Lonmin mines. The most publicly violent occurrence of public order policing the country had seen since apartheid.
This trend carried on into 2014, which saw 569 protests in Gauteng alone, most of which ended in violence.

There has been a slight decrease in the militarisation of the police within public order situations as there has been a reintroduction of the POP unit.

The National Instruction on Crowd Management affirms the “importance of a well-trained, resourced and command-driven unit that displays utmost restraint, and adheres to strict guidelines governing the use of force as a tactic of last resort and in compliance with legislative and constitutional imperatives.”

Despite this re-commitment of old promises many would argue that these changes have been minimal. The Fees Must Fall protestors (2015-2016) would attest to this fact, as the SAPS were, and are, still very quick to resort to rubber bullets and tear gas as their primary means of controlling large protesting crowds.

The SAPS are still protecting the interests of the few while actively playing a role in the ongoing oppression of the, primarily black, many. Public trust in the police will not increase if these policing tactics continue. Ultimately, this will infringe the SAPS’s ability to effectively and democratically police.

Deeply conscious police officers needed

It is glaringly obvious the institutional framework of the police is not entirely at fault for these issues. Steps have been taken to ensure the structure encourages transformative action but this is still not the message being passed down by superior SAPS officials.

The police should be making an active effort to assist and ensure the safety of protestors as they fight for the human rights and socioeconomic needs that we are all aware are in short supply, especially for the poor black majority.

Sean Tait and Monique Marks put it this way in their 2011 piece, “You strike a gathering, you strike a rock”.

“Ultimately what we want are public order police officers who are deeply conscious of citizens’ constitutional and other rights, are firm and impartial, and operate in ways that are professional. The best we can hope for is a contextually and situationally appropriate South African model of public order policing.”

In 2018 it is no longer the time to be hopeful that is not enough. Action needs to be taken by the state to alleviate these issues, the SAPS is not a tool for only their benefit – it is supposed to protect and serve the entire country and all its people.

As long as the SAPS are deemed an untrustworthy public institution and they continue down this militarisation path, public unrest will only increase. South Africa does not want to reap the consequences of that reality, again.

– Kimal Daniel Harvey, a former programme intern at the IJR.

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