/ 8 April 2020

Don’t wage war against SA’s poor

Threatening attitude: A policeman points his gun at a crowd of queueing shoppers in Yeoville, Johannesburg. (Marco Longari/AFP)


It is in moments of crisis that the true nature of a political order is revealed. Seven days into the national lockdown and already six civilians had died as a result of police action. Their lives were not ripped away by the indifferent hand of Covid-19, but allegedly stomped out by the brutality of the police. One metro officer and at least two police officers now face counts of murder as a result of using excessive force while attempting to enforce lockdown regulations.

Although it is obviously true that not all police are cruel in their treatment of civilians, the Covid-19 pandemic is showing South Africans how injustice poisons and permeates our society.

Crisis, however, also offers moments of clarity. Historically, it is when societies are engulfed by debilitating catastrophe that they have been compelled towards radical change.

Throughout last weekend videos circulated on social media platforms of security forces whipping, kicking and punching civilians gathered on street corners or outside apartment buildings. News outlets provided reports and video evidence of police shooting rubber bullets and teargas into crowds gathered in long queues outside supermarkets.

The hostility displayed by the police in particular is infuriating in its familiarity. The targets of the gratuitous violence? Those black, poor and working class. The sites where this ferocity explodes? Our most economically destitute communities. Police brutality has become a shameful hallmark of post-apartheid South Africa. The sight of the economically vulnerable and socially ostracised citizens, beaten, bruised and sometimes killed by the police has become a mundane abnormality. 

Since the national lockdown has shed a glaring spotlight on the behaviour of the SAPS, it provides us with an opportunity to ask critical questions about the function and future of policing as an institution.

It is easy to throw blame for police brutality solely on the individuals who partake in it. We could characterise these members of the service as “bad apples” or renegades whose destructive behaviour does not represent the entirety of the institution, further demanding that such behaviour be purged and punished.

One could extend this line of criticism and point towards the failures among leadership during training and deployment. The issue of corruption could be raised. Specifically, we should focus on how the commonality of corruption in the South African Police Service attracts people concerned about self-enrichment rather than the service and protection of people, curating a culture that overlooks the violation of freedoms of rights and an institution that eludes accountability.

The prevalence of this unjust form of violence must compel us to see that the problem is not about cruel individuals, but rather a severely flawed and inadequate institution.

What enables someone to consistently unleash cruelty, often without fear of retaliation and in full view of the public eye, on the bodies and minds of other human beings who are supposedly endowed with rights and liberties? It is power; ferocious and almost power.

Like much of what ails our society, the issue of heavy-handed policing is one of mighty and lethal power concentrated in the hands of a privileged minority. Power which is then abused or ineffectively wielded  to “solve” societal dilemmas far beyond its scope. In other words, a monopoly on force by the state or any entity, especially in societies plagued by inequality and poverty, will and presently does produce perpetual and at times disastrous violence.

A curious mind could ask, but don’t the police need to possess a significant amount of power? They must, within reasonable limitations, be able to restrain bodies, wound and even kill in exceptional circumstances because their “legitimate” monopoly on force keeps us safe. To understand why densely focused power inevitably leads to its abuse, expressed as violence against those undeserving, one must step back and briefly see the larger context in which policing occurs.

Ordinarily we see the police as existing to maintain law and order. Criminals violate laws and threaten not only the safety but the stability, the order, of society. Therefore, in our collective imagination the police primarily function to combat crime. But we must ask, what is the sociological nature of crime? Crime is largely the struggle for survival by those abandoned by the state and exploited or excluded by our economic system.

The people crammed into our prisons are often those who violated the law because the material conditions in which they were trapped offered few to no means of well-being, let alone prosperity.

Burglary, muggings, car-hijackings, illegal drug peddling, gang violence, cash-in-transit heists — the frequency of such crimes is evidence of human lives coerced by poverty. When one’s life is devoid of opportunities, when structures of support are frail or absent, your future may appear barren. And so illegitimate channels towards some semblance of success (or even survival) could appear increasingly attractive.

This brief explanation of crime does not grant criminals the status of sainthood. Theft, and the violence its carrying out usually requires, in most contexts is wrong. Still, understanding the factors external to the individual which influence their actions, is vital to seeing what role police play in society. Moreover, a sociological understanding of crime helps us view criminals not just as criminals but as complex human beings.

Having this view of crime as a socioeconomic rather than legal or moral problem, the purpose of policing can’t simply be to maintain “law and order”. Writing for Jacobin, Alex S Vitale offers insight: “The primary function of police is to manage inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly controlling the behaviours of the poor, working class and nonwhite people — those on the losing end of the economic and political arrangements.”

Batons and bullets can wound those who transgress, but these tools of state power will not eradicate the conditions that perpetuate criminality. Ultimately, police forces have been locked into battle against those desperate to survive, aggressively managing people, some of whom are defiant to the presence of police in their neighbourhoods.

The volatility of this struggle is inflamed by the authority, legally and politically legitimated, that the police possess to use force to manage economic and social injustice. Police services, as an institution, often view crime as a lethal threat to be firmly suppressed or eradicated.

South Africa has witnessed the adoption of a “by any means necessary” approach to the enforcement of law and order. An enforcement given ascendancy over the needs and plights of poor and working class communities. What can and has resulted is a disregard for the rights, freedoms and dignity of those branded as criminals or subversive actors.

The Marikana massacre remains a horrific example of how a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence can create atrocity reminiscent of the terror black people endured during apartheid. Advancing the interests of capital and government (who rely on big business to amass and maintain political power), 34 miners were killed by our security forces during protests for a living wage.

Immense power shared among a few can not only generate disaster for those whom it is wielded over, but power also shields those who carry it from responsibility for the consequences of their actions. In the eight years that have passed since the Marikana massacre, no members of the police force have been prosecuted for the deaths of the miners.

The absence of accountability for police who abuse their authority is far from unusual. More than 3 500 cases of assault and torture by police were reported each year from 2014 to 2018. In that period, 1.9% of police officers were convicted at a conviction rate of lower than 2.5% a year.

As the gap between the haves and have nots expands, so will clashes between the poor and the police. If we are sincerely concerned about the collective safety, well-being and dignity of all citizens, what future do the police have in our society? This isn’t an easy question to answer nor can potential solutions be conjured and implemented overnight.

If crime is primarily a result of an economy and political order that excludes many from the potential for prosperity, then perhaps steps must be taken to overturn “civilisation” as we know it, and move towards designing a society that works in the interests of all who live in it. Surely, a just and pragmatic distribution of the goods this world has to offer will erase the need to wage war against those who must fight to survive in it.

Andile Zulu runs the Born Free Blues blog