Under Bheki Cele's watch, our police service has become the most violent it has ever been, says Verashni Pillay.
My Valentine’s Day this year nearly ended with a bang. Literally.
After a romantic dinner my boyfriend dropped me off outside my house and kissed me goodnight. The knock on his car window was less than welcome, obviously. At first I assumed the police officer peering in just wanted to ensure we were okay. But soon we were hauled out of the car on a quiet Norwood street and surrounded by three police vehicles while six officers milled about, rifles and pistols in hand. We blinked in confusion, trying to understand what we had done wrong.
About 40 minutes later they were gone, leaving behind nothing but exhaust fumes and a lingering knot of fear in my stomach. I was lucky enough to avoid becoming a statistic that night. Or maybe just middle class enough.
On the other side of Johannesburg that same night, 16-year-old Thato Mokoka was in a similar predicament. But a ruined Valentine’s Day would turn out to be the least of his problems. Mokoka ended the night dead, face down in the dirt outside his family’s shack in Soweto, three bullets in his body.
In the ensuing uproar, newspapers told us that Mokoka, who was pictured at a younger age grinning impishly into the camera, was suspected of gang activity and possible possession of an illegal weapon. The weapon was never found and we will never know exactly what he did to provoke being shot by a student cop. But the controversial nature of the incident meant that it received immediate attention from the normally underresourced Independent Complaints Directorate at the behest of the police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, who put the death down to the actions of one lone “tsotsi” cop.
More like a tsotsi cop-out. Pinning Mokoka’s killing on a rogue element in the police force is a disingenuous move that ignores the larger context: a police force that has grown more violent as their professional training deteriorates.
Mthethwa forgets that he allowed his previous national commissioner, Bheki Cele, to run rampant. Under Cele, who had no policing experience, the ranking system was militarised, officers were encouraged to use “deadly force” and a dangerous cowboy element was introduced into the newly named police “force”.
Under Cele’s watch, our police service became the most violent it had ever been. The directorate reported a sharp spike in complaints, investigating three times more severe assault cases in 2010 than in 2001. And I have not even mentioned the statistics on rape, fatal shootings, torture and deaths in custody.
Here is a crazy fact: I live in one of the most violent cities in the world and yet I have never been physically intimidated. Except by the police.
During my Valentine’s Day ordeal I struggled to understand what the problem was amid all the inexplicable shouting. Finally I overheard a police officer’s radio crackle and figured out that a car matching the description of my boyfriend’s vehicle had just been stolen in the area.
Fair enough. But although they quickly ascertained that this was not the stolen car, the officers were reluctant to move on and continued to act in an intimidating manner for at least 20 more minutes. Were they trying to save face?
Afterwards I found myself feeling sorry for them. They simply did not have the training to deal with the situation in a professional manner.
Cele may have been in charge for just more than two years before he was ousted thanks to some dodgy leasing tenders, but he used that time to further encourage a “tough-man” mentality among officers in a country in which such a culture is already a problem.
The flip side of the coin, of course, is the rising number of police officers being killed while on duty, or even turning on their families and then themselves. While chasing dodgy tenders and issuing worrying instructions, Cele failed to address the already urgent need for adequate counselling for police officers facing traumatic situations on a daily basis.
In addition, reports emerged in this newspaper of a police training college—much like the one where the so-called “tsotsi” student cop was trained—getting heavy-handed with its young recruits, using assault, harsh punishment and sleep deprivation. Experts warned of a link between violent training methods and police brutality.
In the uproar that has attended one high-profile instance of police brutality, it is expedient for our politicians to posit the incident as an isolated event. But it will not solve the problem.
Mthethwa and our new acting commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, need to investigate the policing environment that engenders such violence. Mkhwanazi is the first police commissioner in more than a decade who has actually served as a policeman. Perhaps he will be the man to bring about the change desperately needed in the way police officers are trained. Until then I am praying for no more surprise Valentine’s Day gifts from our police—for me, or anyone else.