/ 3 June 2011

South African police much too macho

Now that the local government elections and the concomitant campaign-focused media coverage is over, it’s time to refocus on an urgent issue: making sure that our police are competent to serve the South African public, even in situations of tense public unrest.

The April 13 footage of Andries Tatane’s death at the hands of South African Police Service (SAPS) officers shocked the world and captured the violent and oppressive capabilities of the police for posterity. The 1991 video of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers’ brutality against Rodney King had the same effect. The video, aired thousands of times on television, captured officers beating King with batons while other officers stood by.

It created a pivotal moment out of what would otherwise have been another forgotten incident of police brutality. The offending officers were tried and acquitted, resulting in the Los Angeles race riots and the eventual resignation of the late LAPD chief, Daryl Gates. Sweeping reform ensued within the LAPD, which had formerly acted with impunity.

South Africa’s police commissioner, Bheki Cele, described Tatane’s death as “ugly, bad and painful”, yet has largely dismissed the issue as the actions of a few rogue officers. He insisted that in a force of 190 000 officers “some kids are bound to step out of line”.

Cele’s stance resonates with Gates’s comments that there was only a “bad apple or two” in his force and the King case was simply an aberration. This stonewalling strategy was untenable for Gates. Individual citizens, up to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, pushed until Gates resigned. Likewise, Cele must be held accountable for his officers’ unjustified use of lethal force.

Media coverage following the killing of Tatane has been quick to highlight the sharp rise in deaths in police custody in the past three years in South Africa. Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) reported that the number of people shot dead by police has doubled since 2006. Overall deaths in police custody or resulting from police action, at 860 in the 2009-2010 year, are markedly higher than they were in the five-year period from 2003 to 2008, when they averaged 695 a year.

Not only has the number of people shot dead by police jumped from 281 in 2005-2006 to 521 in 2010, South Africa also has one of the highest recorded rates of homicides by police officers in the world. The United States (overall population of 311-million) had 439 arrest-related homicides by law enforcement personnel in 2006.

Heightened attention
In 2010 England and Wales (population 54-million combined) had one fatal shooting in police custody. In contrast, the 521 shooting fatalities in South Africa (population 49-million) reveal an acute problem.

With the heightened attention given to Tatane’s death, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) has been swift in its investigation. But, as with the R350 Cele handed the Tatane family during his visit to Ficksurg, this ICD investigation is hard to view as anything more than a platitude. Though commendable in its efforts to address police corruption and brutality, the ICD is empowered only to make non-enforceable recommendations to the SAPS for disciplinary action and changes in procedures. It can hand over its dockets to the National Prosecuting Authority, which may choose to undertake prosecution.

There is much to question regarding the ICD’s effectiveness in creating change within the SAPS, for its recommendations and investigations are often ignored. This may change with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate Bill, which will change the ICD to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate and give the new body teeth by requiring the SAPS to respond to its investigations and comply with its recommendations.

The ISS has rightly called for the investigation of the Tatane case to be moved to a judge-led commission of inquiry. This move would enable a more independent investigation and its findings would be taken seriously.

But government’s response to Tatane’s death must not stop with investigation and, where the facts support it, prosecution. The increasing numbers of deaths and the exceptionally brutal manner in which Tatane was killed indicate not only a pattern of systemic failure within the SAPS to adequately train its officers and maintain order, it also reveals a hyper-masculine and violent culture among its officers. There is a crisis of masculinity within SAPS’ ranks that must be addressed.

‘Threat to population’
The South African minister of police has warned civilians “not to provoke or insult the police”. This statement functions as a threat to the population never to act against the police. Such an expectation of the civilian population can be earned only by means of a track record of peacekeeping, fairness and good policing. It is not an entitlement the police can enjoy. This statement reveals an attitude, present in the SAPS to the very top ranks, that its officers are justified in dominating civilians and punishing any sign of disrespect.

Here, another parallel can be drawn with the LAPD: the macho attitude within SAPS echoes Gates’s problematic recruitment and operational policies for the LAPD. Under Gates, the LAPD recruited cadets with billboards reading simply: “Macho! Join the LAPD.” And he was known for his military rhetoric, making statements such as that drug dealers “should be taken out back and shot” because “we’re at war”.

The LAPD also employed a paramilitary approach to policing, an approach that limited officer entrenchment in communities and placed them in opposition to the citizenship. Likewise, under Cele’s “stomach in, chest out” and recently instituted military-style ranking system, a hyper-masculine and militaristic culture appears to be pervasive in the SAPS.

The link between violence and macho forms of masculinity is critical to the question of police brutality. Hyper-masculinity is tied to a greater likelihood that violence will be used. This is shown in the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, conducted in 2009-2010 by the International Center for Research on Women and the Instituto Promundo. The survey was administered in seven countries: Brazil, Chile, Croatia, India, Mexico, Rwanda and South Africa.

In South Africa 68% of surveyed men with significantly gender-inequitable attitudes had committed rape. These men who had raped were more prone to other forms of violence, such as fighting with knives, illegal gun-possession and gang membership. In all seven locations the survey found that men with rigid notions of masculinity were more likely to use interpersonal violence. This is also illustrated by the endemic brutality of the LAPD under Gates and now in the SAPS under Cele.

The Rodney King case and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles revealed the failure of Gates’s out-of-touch approach to policing and his emphasis on macho forms of masculinity. After Gates’s resignation, extensive systemic investigation led the LAPD to switch to a community-policing approach to improve relations with citizens and to leverage community support to increase public safety. It also increased the number of specially trained LAPD officers able to deal with crisis situations such as riots.

The SAPS’s failure in the Tatane case presents a similar opportunity for serious change within its ranks. It may not be possible to address the core culture that repeatedly creates the “bad apples” who kill hundreds of civilians each year in South Africa, but SAPS can start to change its officers’ macho behaviour.

One step may be to reinstitute specially trained officers — such as those in the former public order policing units — who understand their role as peacekeeper and negotiator of public dialogue. Specially trained officers may understand that they are facilitating protest, marches and other forms of collective speech that are vital to South Africa’s democracy.

Malehlohonolo Tatane said she would never trust a police officer again. When a civilian population is afraid of its own protectors, all the factors contributing to police-on-civilian violence must be examined.

The LAPD experience has illustrated that a hyper-masculine culture and rhetoric is a factor in the increased risk that police officers will use their authority and firepower against civilians.

In addition to the ongoing investigation, the Tatane case offers the SAPS a chance to make internal reforms. It must view the macho culture and its resulting violence as an important aspect of understanding the context in which the police operate.

The authors both work for Sonke Gender Justice Network