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Police must work with communities, not political elite – Wiser debate

Housing activists in KwaZulu-Natal are being killed, beaten and tortured by police who prevent them from marching legally, who they say often act on behalf of local politicians. This is according to Abahlali baseMjondolo co-founder S'Bu Zikode, who told a University of Witwatersrand seminar on Monday night that his organisation's efforts to march legally are flouted by local policing authorities.

The seminar, the first in a series of seminars called "Public Positions", hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, or Wiser. The topic of Monday night's seminar was "Police against the people". Wits researcher Julia Hornberger presented a short paper calling for a "complicit police".

Zikode, who was invited as a panelist, said senior police officers personalised policing in the Cato Crest area.

"When I was arrested, an officer said, 'We've got you, now. You think are a Jesus who can save the shack dwellers?'."

Zikode said this was in spite of attempts by Abahlali to ensure their protests were approved by the local municipality.

"Most of our protests are banned before we can start marching. We follow every step of the gatherings Act, but it is clear to us the police themselves are not informed about what the law says … It's not the city managers but the police officers who ban the marches. One of the reasons is that they do not agree with the intention of marching."

​Zikode said police took their mandates from the political elite. "And so their only mandate is to ensure that the protest doesn't happen."

Hornberger's paper made the case for a police service that protected the rights of people to protest, in concert with communities, instead of a police force that serves the interests of the powerful.

"To avoid an escalation of violence, in the moment as much as over a long period of time, the police would need to always assume that the crowd is there to deliver a message and that the primary role of the police would be to facilitate the deliverance of the message.

"The police cannot change inequality and unemployment, but it can choose the side of the protesters and help to deliver the message. Here is a good example of how this should go, and who was observing the negotiations between representatives of a far left anarchist group and metropolitan police officers during the early 1990s in Britain. The declared aspiration of the protesters was to 'tear down the fabric of capitalism', to which the superintendent conducting the meeting replied, 'And how can we help you?'." 

Gareth Newham, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, also a panelist, said part of the problem with the South African Police Service was a huge recruitment drive in the last decade, which saw policing number swell by over 200%.

He said the thinking by politicians was that more police visibility would reduce crime. And while there is some correlation between police numbers and crime reduction, this made it difficult to monitor the quality of training.

'Essence of policing in a democracy'
Policing colleges were under pressure to train large numbers of recruits with little attention paid to the calibre of graduates.

Newham said the "essence of policing in a democracy" was policing by consent, meaning that communities had to view the police positively. At the moment, high levels of perceived corruption within the police service contributed to communities rejecting the police, and an acrimonious relationship developing.

Firoz Cachalia, also a Wits lecturer and a former Gauteng MEC, said it was necessary to return to the strategy in the early 1990s, which recognised the need for a transformative, democratised policing service working in concert with communities.

This idea was abandoned by politicians in favour of a "law and order" styled police force in an effort to curb high levels of crime, he said.

Monday's debate was the second of the monthly seminars entitled "Public Positions on History and Politics", a project of Wits University's department of political studies, the History Workshop and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). The Mail & Guardian is the project's exclusive media partner in this series.

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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