While news of the death of Emido Macia, a taxi driver who was dragged behind a police vehicle and, according to forensic reports, brutally beaten, made headlines around the world, President Jacob Zuma last week told Parliament that South Africa was not a violent country.
Speaking of the plans to set up special courts to deal with perpetrators of violence during service delivery protests, Zuma said: “We are doing this to build a culture of responsibility, accountability, respect for authority and respect for one another."
But he did not speak about any plans to clean up the South African Police Service (SAPS), which stumbled from one disaster to the next for at least the past year.
Between the SAPS’s violent handling of the striking Marikana miners, the death of Andries Tatane, the seemingly inept handling of the Oscar Pistorius case and now the alleged torture of Macia, there was no indication of whether police also will be held to similar standards for building such a culture of responsibility, accountability, respect for authority and respect for one another.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa was away on honeymoon since Macia died and police chief Riah Phiyega was mostly silent on the matter following an initial statement expressing her concern and calling for an internal investigation.
Some, including former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, called for Phiyega to be axed, while others maintained that it was unfair to expect her to accept the blame for years of rot in the police force.
'Just one unfortunate incident'
One police spokesperson described the killing as “just one unfortunate incident”, and said that the SAPS was “discouraging” members from such behaviour but there were no indications that a shake-up in terms of discipline was imminent.
Officials repeatedly touted improving crime stats as evidence that the police were beginning to turn the fight against crime around but this did not speak to the rapidly deteriorating image of the SAPS.
Last week the Mail & Guardian asked readers to share their experiences of interacting with the SAPS, whether positive or negative. A number of readers responded that their interactions were positive and that the police a professional service.
“In November 2010 when I had a very serious situation at home and they were there in a split second to assist. The officers were professional and very very helpful. Without being asked to, they returned the following evening for a follow up and spoke at length with my family members to ensure that we were okay,” wrote reader Natalie Reynolds.
But the overwhelming response from readers was negative.
Threats of violence
Complaints ranged from shoddy police work to intimidation to the soliciting of bribes. Another reader, Thulani Mncube, said that overall his interactions with police, at roadblocks for example, were always professional and positive. But he complained that after being attacked by thugs in his home in 2012, he had yet to receive a report on the conclusion of the investigation.
Safiyya Omar complained that when she went with her sister to report a stolen car, officers refused to provide her with either a copy of the statement or a case number. She said that to date, her sister received no call from the investigating officer, nor any feedback on the case.
A seeming disregard for due cause and tendency to threaten citizens with violence was also evident. Greg Evans wrote about how private security guards flagged down police after he stopped to exchange greetings with a foreign national.
Evans said he was intimidated by the officer and searched for drugs without cause. “No respect was shown to me as a person and my rights were non-existent. The policeman's behaviour was predicated on the imminent threat of brute force. There was no attempt made to engage with me on any other level,” he wrote.
Shaheen Rasool described being charged at by gun-toting police as he drove out of a parking lot. Rasool and his passengers were told to get out of the car and searched at gunpoint. “Whenever I spoke I was told to shut up or they will bliksem me. At one point the lady police officer said I was lucky they didn’t shoot me,” he said.
After producing his ID number and proving he owned the car, he was told that his number plates were being used by another car. Rasool did not lay a complaint. “I was told they were doing their job and nothing can be done,” he said.
Others complained that they believed they were the victims of some type of scam. Reader Jeff Griffiths related an incident in which he had been bumped by a car in Cape Town’s Long Street. Griffiths said police officers were called as witnesses and the driver laid a charge of malicious damage to his car.
In the end the charges were dropped he said, but not before he incurred R10 000 worth of legal fees. “My lawyer had sight of the dossier and let me know that none of the witnesses had signed their statements. [There was] no case to pursue. Something was on the go and it cost me R10 000 to get away from the scamsters,” he wrote.
A number of readers complained of aggression by police. Craig de Villiers related an incident in which the vehicle in which he was travelling was pulled over late at night by officers in two SAPS vehicles. De Villiers was making use of a driving service and was not behind the wheel but had been drinking in the vehicle. Police began to search the driver for a gun and attempted to bundle his girlfriend into one of their patrol cars. When she ran and hid behind him, about five police officers surrounded them and one drew his gun, he said. The group was accused of resisting arrest.
The matter was eventually resolved at the police station but when De Villiers asked to lay a formal complaint he was told that he could not do so. He did not persist in trying to lay a complaint, he said. “We had given thought to reporting the incident but my girlfriend was severely traumatised by the incident and wanted to avoid further confrontation. In addition, given the state of controls, I doubted anything would come of such a report,” he wrote.
Airbrushing the stats
Reader Erica Inches said that in her interaction with police, she found that police were not interested in opening a docket following a home invasion. Inches said she insisted they investigate, for insurance purposes, and that she asked for fingerprints to be taken and brought further evidence to the police. But the detectives closed the case. “It was not resolved, the perp went free and the case docket was not updated with all the information … It was classed as a burglary not home invasion. Makes the stats look good, right?” she said.
The singling out of foreign nationals by police, which has been highlighted as a cause for concern by research institutions and rights groups, was also in evidence.
Restauranteur Sue-Ann Grant detailed an incident in which one of her waitresses was picked up on suspicion of being a foreign national and told to pay R200 and hand her cellphone over to the officers or risk an overnight stay in a jail cell. The waitress was a South African citizen.
When Grant went to lodge a complaint at the station, she said, the desk sergeant told her they could see who was foreign by how they look. “Most of my black staff experienced this sort of harassment at some time. It took three months for [Independent Police Investigative Directorate] to come and get a statement from us. My waitress by that time was too scared to go ahead with the complaint,” said Grant.
Three readers also detailed incidents of serious aggression – one reader alleged that he had been beaten and tortured by police, while two others told of being shot at and assaulted.
In two instances the matter was referred for further investigation.
Nothing would be done
Reader Xolani Fekisi claimed he was pursued by police in an unmarked vehicle, shot at and beaten by cops, then held in prison where he was interrogated, beaten and asked to pay R12 000 in order to be released.
He was taken to court on charges of reckless and negligent driving, he said, but the charges were later dropped. “I went to the police station to lay a complaint [and] three police officers refused to open a case for me,” he wrote.
Several respondents to the survey pointed out that they had not reported police misconduct to authorities because they did not believe anything would be done to follow up on it.
These readers' stories mirrored a 2010 research exercise in which the South African Institute of Race Relations set out to investigate police involvement in serious crimes.
The researchers uncovered 100 serious incidents – ranging from ATM bombings to armed robbery, rape, murder and serious assault – within a week, at which point it stopped looking for more incidents.
The researchers noted that general crime reporting figures for South Africa were estimated by some surveys to be considerably lower than the number of actual crimes committed, and that this was particularly likely to be the case where police officers were alleged to be responsible for committing a crime.
“In part this is because the victim of that crime may be too afraid to report the crime or may not have any confidence in the police investigating the crime,” the researchers said.