Police shot dead more suspects in the year to April 2009 than in any other year over the past decade, according to the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD).
The latest figures, tabled in Parliament in June, reveal that 556 suspects — including 32 innocent bystanders — were shot and killed by police between April last year and March 31 this year.
Research by David Bruce, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), shows that the 2008-9 figure is not far off the 1976 tally of 653 people shot dead by the apartheid police at the height of black student protests.
The highest-ever recorded number of shootings of civilians is 763 in 1985 — the year that marked the start of South Africa’s five-year state of emergency.
The figures take on added significance following the extraordinary weekend police killing of 30-year-old Olga Kekana in Mabopane, near Pretoria, who was on her way to a party in a car with three friends.
The ICD started recording the number of deaths as a result of police action only in 1997.
But in a study titled Interpreting the Body Count: South African statistics on lethal police violence, Bruce was able to piece together information from the apartheid era.
”There was no reporting mechanism in place and all deaths were handled by the police themselves — therefore there was no way of knowing the real number of deaths due to police action,” ICD spokesperson Moses Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian this week.
He added that ”a reporting framework” was put in place to address the reliability of figures provided by the police.
According to Bruce, the police shot an estimated 380 civilians in 1996. In 1997, the figure rose to 518 deaths, 458 of them caused by gunshot wounds. Fatal shootings then declined steadily, reaching the lowest point in 2005-6 with 281 people shot dead.
Since then the tally has risen steadily, hitting a 10-year high this year.
After the weekend horror in Mabopane, the driver of the Toyota, air force pilot Captain Simon Mathibela, blamed the police for heavy-handedness and alleged that they left the scene after the shooting in contravention of standing orders.
Frans Makgotla, Olga’s father, who has vowed to make the police pay, later blamed the actions of the police on President Jacob Zuma’s ”shoot to kill” policy.
On April 10 last year, Susan Shabangu, the former deputy safety and security minister and current minister of mineral resources, told police officers to ”kill the bastards”, initiating a chorus of belligerent government rhetoric.
”You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations — that is my responsibility — Your responsibility is to serve and protect — I want no warning shots. You have one shot and it must be a kill shot,” Shabangu reportedly told senior police leaders.
She received support from Zuma, who berated South Africa’s Constitution and human rights culture as being too lenient and suggested that the laws of the country needed to ”bite” criminals.
Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa later suggested that section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act should be amended to augment police powers to use deadly force.
Mthethwa’s deputy, Fikile Mbalula, and National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele also added their voices to the refrain.
The ICD would not confirm suggestions that the increase in the number of police killings was linked to Shabangu’s statements or those of other politicians who have climbed on the ”shoot to kill” bandwagon.
”At this stage we cannot determine that [Shabangu’s statements had an effect]. As the ICD we look at each case on its own merits and where police contravene the law, we investigate and make recommendations — for prosecution,” Dlamini said.
He added that investigations into the Kekana shooting are still under way and said that eight guns have been sent for ballistic testing.
He expected ”warning statements” on Thursday from the police officers involved in the shooting, adding that a post-mortem would be conducted on Kekana and a bullet removed from one of the two surviving victimsÂ would also be analysed.