Editorial: Cops are shooting down democracy

In the Western Cape, a child is shot in the mouth by a police officer. Horrifying images are repeated all over the internet.

This took place this past week in Hout Bay. “The boy was hiding beneath an upturned wooden table behind a line of burning debris strewn by residents of Hangberg infuriated by looming fishing quota cuts,” wrote GroundUp’s Kimon de Greef in his sterling report. “The residents also vented at systemic service delivery problems and a breakdown in communication between their community and the City of Cape Town.”

A week ago, in Pietermaritzburg, it was reported that another child had been injured in police action against residents of Imbali, who were protesting against the lack of water provision.

In George, four women and a man were arrested within the past week for “public violence”. Thembalethu residents blocked the N2 highway with burning tyres and other objects in protest against the demolition of 87 “illegal structures” – informal dwellings, basically. Police said: “We had to use rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.”

GroundUp reported further violence by police in Hangberg, in the course of later arrests. It reported on the 14-year-old who had been shot in the mouth, who is now in hospital: “The teen was hit with at least four rubber bullets – two hitting his ribs and cracking them, and another two hitting his mouth. He had ventured to witness the protest from about 3km away in Imizamo Yethu, where he lives.”

GroundUp also noted the “history of violence” that characterised police action in the area, recalling several incidents that had led to loss of life, including a 2012 incident in which four people lost eyes thanks to rubber bullets.

This week’s events come soon after the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the killings at Marikana, where 34 protesting miners were slain by heavily armed police. It was not so long after that massacre that South Africans learned about how Mozambican immigrant Emidio Josias “Mido” Macia was murdered by police officers who dragged him behind their van, to which he had been handcuffed. Already, 16 months before Marikana, Andries Tatane had become the first recognisable face of those slain by police during protests in a democratic South Africa. At least in the Macia case, several officers were charged and convicted; the seven officers accused of battering Tatane to death were acquitted.

Have South Africans become so inured to this kind of heavy-handed police action in response to protests that it takes images of a 14-year-old dragging himself along, spewing blood, to remind us of how this kind of violence permeates our society, as it did throughout the apartheid era and way back into the colonial conquest?

If so, that means we haven’t sufficiently changed the society the new government of liberation took charge of in 1994. It’s now a cliché to point out how little has changed since the official end of apartheid, despite all the promises made by the ANC as it came to power. It’s particularly saddening that one of the things that hasn’t changed is the tendency of the police, in service of the ruling class, to act with such violence towards citizens.

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