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Police training: Brutality exposed

Kamvelihle Gumede-Johnson

A Mail & Guardian investigation has turned an alarming spotlight on SAPS's heavy-handed, military-style approach to the training of recruits.

A Mail & Guardian investigation has turned an alarming spotlight on the South African Police Service’s heavy-handed, military-style approach to the training of police recruits, which includes assault, harsh punishment and sleep deprivation.

Among other things, a video clip leaked to the M&G clearly shows an instructor slapping a trainee, who staggers away after the blow. Trainees say they are struck repeatedly.

Hidden cellphone footage reveals a SAPS commander hitting trainees during a training session.
The exposé prompted a warning by an expert in the field that there is a link between violent police training methods and police brutality. “If the police are trained with verbal and physical abuse, there is a strong possibility that they will act that way towards communities. It is a very dangerous thing and should be dealt with immediately,” said Chris Botha, a retired policeman who is now a training consultant for the SAPS and police in other countries.

Police brutality has been in the spotlight following the recent killing of Ficksburg community leader Andries Tatane. Last week the M&G reported Independent Complaints Directorate figures showing that the number of police assaults rose from 1380 in 2007-2008 to 1667 in 2009-2010. A recent Amnesty International report provides hair-raising details of SAPS torture and brutality.

In the cause of “toughening” them up and instilling discipline, trainees at the SAPS training college in Pretoria, interviewed by the M&G in the course of a three-month investigation, said they were subjected to five-hour, non-stop physical training sessions, during which they were not allowed to drink, go to the toilet or remove their jerseys in hot weather.


Screenshots from the leaked video clip show an instructor hitting a trainee with his bare hands

Increase in injuries
Sources at the college said the institution’s hospital had complained that harsh training methods and punishment were causing an excessive number of injuries. One particular penalty, in which trainees are made to hop on their toes for long periods, had caused numerous ankle injuries.

Trainees said that on the day they arrived at the college they were forced to run 5km while carrying their luggage. They said their superiors had threatened them with expulsion, saying their phone calls would be traced if they breathed a word about the abuse.

During the investigation the M&G spoke both to trainees and an officer from the police employee, health and wellness programme, who requested anonymity. The newspaper also heard a voice recording and viewed cellphone video clips of training sessions.

In these, instructors and college managers constantly remind trainees that the SAPS is now a “police force”—as opposed to a service—and policemen should behave accordingly. The SAPS introduced military-style rankings last year, in spite of criticism that the move was a return to the apartheid-era militarisation of the police. In the voice recording made last month and leaked to the M&G an instructor is heard urging trainees to become soldiers.

“Here, in this college, the soldiers will make it. Only soldiers will stay on. People, this is a police force,” said the instructor, known only as warrant officer Baloyi. One trainee said that an instructor in street survival and the use of firearms had introduced a discussion about the police killing of Ficksburg protester Tatane, in which he allegedly insisted that the police were ­correct to use maximum force.

“He claimed Tatane was posing a threat to the police. That’s why they protected themselves,” said the student.


Screenshots from the leaked video clip show an instructor hitting a trainee with his bare hands

‘Two types of citizens’
Trainees said that during training they were cut off from the outside world, with no access to television, radio or newspapers. But the instructor allegedly brought an Afrikaans newspaper with Tatane’s picture on the front page and showed it to about 40 trainees as proof that the late community leader “overpowered the police”.

“We told him [the instructor] they needed to realise there are two types of citizens out there: criminals and law-abiding citizens. The approach cannot be the same,” said a trainee.

He said: “When you’re punished all the time you become aggressive. The instructors call us shovels and say shovels don’t get tired. They also say the motto at the college is, ‘Comply and complain later’. Even when you know an instructor is wrong, you just follow instructions,” said one.

In the voice clip Baloyi is heard telling trainees that letters from the hospital putting injured students on a programme of light physical exercise until they are better will no longer be accepted.

“The criminals out there are not going to ask you how many light duties you were on at the college before they shoot you. They’ll just shoot you. If you don’t protect yourself you’re going to die,” he is heard saying.

All the trainees complained that they were placed on a night-patrol roster that required them to patrol the barracks from 10pm to 2am and then to get up at 4am. Patrol duties went on for a week at a time.


Screenshots from the leaked video clip show an instructor hitting a trainee with his bare hands

Stressful environment
The officer in the SAPS health and wellness department confirmed the hard-handed approach to trainees.

“The situation you’re telling me about is true. I know that the environment is not good for human beings, it’s stressful,” the officer said.

But he defended the instructors. “When you meet a criminal out there, is he going to treat you softly? Remember, this is no longer a police service, it’s a police force. We are no longer providing services.”

Asked about the trainees’ constitutional rights, the officer said the Constitution did not apply.

“These people are getting a salary, free food and a free uniform and sportswear. They have to work. No one is forced to be at that college. If you can’t cope, you’re free to go.” The officer confirmed that the harsh conditions had led to a significant dropout rate at police training colleges, particularly among whites. “They can’t take it because they come with that mentality of constitutional rights. I was told 12 whites had left the Pretoria College by the end of the first day.”

The employee wellness team provides support for trainees under a “self-empowerment programme” and visits each college twice a year for a week at time. The only intervention the team can make is to ask for a punishment to be reduced.

Botha, the police training expert, told the M&G that the training represents a return to the methods of the apartheid era. “It smacks of what happened pre-1994. Harsh treatment was part of breaking a person down and building them up again to face the enemy,” he said.


Screenshots from the leaked video clip show an instructor hitting a trainee with his bare hands

“The approach is: ‘Let’s frame you to see the enemy the way we see him.’ At the time the enemy was the terrorist and the communist.” Botha condemned any abuse inflicted on trainees, saying the abusive treatment impeded learning. “I’ve seen people shivering in class, on the training ground and on the shooting range from fear.”

He said that when he was still involved in inspecting colleges their management would give inspectors “a strict list” of places to be inspected and he suspected some of the human rights violations might have been concealed.

“Training programme of international standard”
National police spokesperson, captain Dennis Adriao, said the training programme for new recruits was of “international standard” and was based on “best-training practices from various countries worldwide” to ensure the best possible tactical skills and services to the community. New recruits were informed of what to expect and signed a memorandum of agreement, Adriao said.

“In that agreement it is stipulated that their contracts will be suspended if they are unfit or are on light duty for more than six days.

“Physical training and discipline forms an integral part of a police member’s training and is essential not only to protect their lives, but also the lives of community members.” But he said that recruits placed on light duty should be excused from physical activities, in line with doctors’ recommendations.

Adriao said the SAPS was not aware of any abuse or assault at the college and recruits could report any abuse to the commander of the institution so that it could be investigated and possible disciplinary steps taken.

He said the SAPS had not seen the video clip leaked to the M&G, showing an instructor assaulting a student, “but would encourage that recruit to come forward if that occurred”.

Police training is done “to maintain the level of fitness and discipline — it is, therefore, obvious that the training will be tough and strenuous to prepare trainees to perform their duties in the operational field”, he said.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, said trainees who felt their rights had been violated should lay a complaint. “Vigorous as the training is, we also enforce respect among our trainers for trainees,” Mnisi said.

“If the trainees have any complaint, there are various internal channels which we are certain were clearly communicated to them prior to undertaking the training.” He said it would be “premature to endorse or condemn anyone, based on these allegations, without any tangible evidence”.

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