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Police under fire after Ficksburg protester’s death

The death of Andries Tatane at the hands of police officers has forced South Africans to question the direction in which the nation's law-enforcement body is moving.

Tatane, a teacher, activist, husband and father of two young sons, was among a group of about 4 000 Meqheleng township residents who marched on the Ficksburg municipal offices in the Free State on Wednesday to complain about poor service delivery. The event took a turn for the worse when law enforcement officials, armed with water cannons, batons and rubber bullets challenged the already agitated demonstrators.

According to witnesses, Tatane was protecting a group of elderly people who were being targeted by a police water cannon and had challenged the police to aim the cannon at him instead when he was attacked.

Video footage of the incident, captured by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), shows an unarmed Tatane being beaten by six officers. He is then seen collapsing, with blood streaming down his chest. Tatane died of his injuries about 20 minutes later.

The next day, angry Meqheleng youths burnt down a Department of Home Affairs office, a Department of Public Works building and a library. Armed with rocks and petrol bombs, they barricaded streets in the township and faced off against police.

Policemen arrested
After the incident, police confirmed that those believed to have been involved in Tatane's death had not been suspended, but rather transferred to other areas. On Saturday, after an investigation by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), six members of Bloemfontein's public order police unit were arrested. The six appeared in court on Monday with a large group of demonstrators protesting outside.

The African National Congress, which welcomed the ICD's swift action in arresting the officers, has called for calm in Ficksburg and said the matter should now be left in the hands of the judiciary.

Also on Monday, the ICD confirmed that Tatane had been shot dead but would not confirm whether the wound was caused by a rubber bullet. Beeld newspaper has reported that two rubber bullets were removed from Tatane's body during an autopsy.

Response to Tatane's death
Shortly after the incident, the ANC released a statement through its spokesperson Jackson Mthembu condemning the "brutal beating of the man to death" and the "apartheid-era police strong-arm tactics" used by members of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

The party also expressed concern over the SABC's decision to air the footage on prime time news and called on the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) to investigate whether the broadcaster had overstepped its mandate. But the SABC maintains that the footage was carried with a warning and that it reports what happened without prejudice.

While the incident drew horrified reactions from across the nation, the office of national police commissioner Bheki Cele at first declined to comment and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa berated citizens for "provoking and taunting" police.

Cele later said that action would be taken against those who had been involved in Tatane's death, and Mthethwa asked for the public to allow the law to run its course. Although the police department has extended its condolences to the Tatane family, neither Cele nor Mthethwa have met with the family in person.

There was also little comment from the office of president Jacob Zuma who was in China last week, attending a summit for leaders of the developing countries economic groups Brics (representing Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

At the weekend Seipei Tatane, the sister of the slain man, told the Sunday Independent that although the family has read of condolences from the president and from political parties, they felt his death was being used as a "political football".

Increasing police brutality
Observers have noted the increasing brutality of the police force over the past few years. In 2009, Cele raised eyebrows when he called for a change to legislation that would allow police offers greater freedom to shoot at suspects. Cele, who also reorganised the police force to reflect greater militarisation and a more army-like structure, was supported by both Mthethwa and Zuma in his call to "shoot to kill".

In its 2010 annual report, the ICD said it had investigated 1 769 cases of people dying in police custody or as a result of police action. The ICD said that in the Free State alone, seven suspects died while being arrested and 47 died as a result of police action or in police custody. Despite this, Free State police maintain that Tatane's death was an isolated incident.

David Bruce, a senior researcher with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, has said that the incident should not be viewed in isolation but rather as a manifestation of a systemic problem.

"This incident [reaffirms] evidence of an emerging pattern of brutality by police responding to service delivery demonstrations — at a time when the number of killings and serious non-fatal assaults by police are at extremely high levels," he told the Independent.

Since Tatane's death, there seems to be some recognition within the government of the growing tendency of police to commit acts of violence in the execution of their duties. Speaking at an election rally over the weekend, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe highlighted a "concerning culture" growing in the police force that needed to be changed.

Read Chris Roper's column on police brutality

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