Covid-19: Police abuses reveal systemic flaws


Over the past three weeks something remarkable has happened in South Africa. Vast numbers of us have submitted to an entirely new system of order in which we are largely confined to our homes. 

The restrictions on the use of public space currently in place are more extensive than any that have been imposed during our history. Even during the states of emergency of the late 1980s when there were some night-time curfews, day-time restrictions on movement as severe as these were never uniformly imposed.

A comparison can be made with the apartheid-era limitations on the movement of black people in urban South Africa. If without passes or in “white areas”, one’s very presence could provide justification for police attention. 

Government has, however, managed to obtain a great degree of public co-operation in complying with the current restrictions. At least for those of us who understand the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, we recognise that they are in our interests. 

But, notably at the start of the lockdown, many people did not understand the motivation for it. There are also many people for whom compliance with the lockdown has been extremely difficult, to the point of being impossible. It was, therefore, inevitable that there would be challenges in enforcing the lockdown, raising questions about how this would be done.

Many people have commended President Cyril Ramaphosa for his overall leadership during this period and his two addresses, to members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), on the afternoon of Thursday March 26, a few hours before the start of the national lockdown, are also largely to be admired. 

The essence of his vision for enforcement of the lockdown was that, within the overall mission of “saving lives”, the security services would support and guide people in complying with lockdown regulations. They would provide people with information and encourage them to comply with lockdown regulations in their own interests.

But the imposition of the lockdown was inevitably in part a coercive undertaking. Ramaphosa made this explicit in his address to SAPS members. “This is not the time to play with fire,” he said. “Those who want to take chances; those who want to do wrong, must, of course, meet the wrath of the South African state.”

There are some people who have suggested that the state should have followed another path. In an article in Business Day the economist Neva Makgetla argued that South Africa should have relied on “a popular movement of informed citizens who seek to maintain physical distance despite the high cost to incomes and comfort, and to wash their hands”.

Ramaphosa should, from the beginning, have used more temperate language. But the threat posed by the coronavirus required a rapid response. The compelling national interest in imposing the lockdown within a matter of a few days required that it be imposed through the authority of the state.  

There are unquestionably numerous police who have acted in the spirit that Ramaphosa called for. But the lockdown regulations were always going to be difficult to enforce. Notwithstanding the benevolent role that Ramaphosa invoked for the security forces, he had given them a daunting task.

The term “public order” is often used narrowly in South Africa to refer to the control and policing of public gatherings. But elsewhere the concept refers broadly to the parameters for acceptable use of public space not just by groups, but also by individuals.

South Africa does not have an entrenched culture of compliance with authority, including the authority of the police, in respect of public order. The Oxford University-based South African policing scholar, Jonny Steinberg, has documented how police often encounter resistance when attempting to enforce public-order laws and regulations such as those relating to public drinking.

Where enforcement carries with it the risk of confrontations with groups of people, police have become wary of the risks involved. Many inner-city areas and informal settlements are semi no-go zones for the police. Their presence is tolerated. But if their actions do not meet with public approval, they are quickly made to feel unwelcome with taunts and missiles rained upon them. 

Now, under the mantle of “saving lives” Ramaphosa was pushing police back into this terrain. The government had imposed on the security forces an obligation to impose, literally overnight, a new system of order unlike anything previously seen in South Africa. Certain language such as that used by Ramaphosa, but also by Minister of Police Bheki Cele and the SANDF’s General Solly Shoke might be seen to have encouraged an overbearing approach by the security forces. 

But there is also another dynamic. For many police, implementation of the lockdown would have given rise to an anxiety that they would again be humiliated and their powerlessness exposed. At the same time, it provided an opportunity for the release of years of accumulated confrontational tension about their own precarious position in these ungovernable areas, an opportunity to re-impose the authority that they are often denied.

And so there has been a side to the lockdown that has been profoundly ugly. Four people have been killed by security forces during enforcement of lockdown regulations. Numerous videos on social media have shown police and soldiers forcing people into strenuous exercises, sometimes accompanied by being shoved or kicked, as punishment for alleged contraventions of lockdown regulations. And, as usual in South Africa, acts of collective resistance have been suppressed with rubber bullets.

A remarkable feature of some of these incidents has been the use of sjamboks by police, captured on video in Hillbrow and reported in Springs, as well as allegedly being used during events in Vosloorus that culminated in the death of Sibusiso Amos on Sunday March 29.

The weapon that then emerges as emblematic of the lockdown’s enforcement in South Africa does not emanate from a modernised and transformed SAPS. Instead, it is an archaic instrument of subordination and obedience.

The international rule book on enforcing public order refers to concepts such as necessity and proportionality, the key elements of minimum force. In some countries, police have given attention to sophisticating their application of these principles, adopting use-of-force policies, strengthening police communication skills, and encouraging police to de-escalate confrontations or use superior numbers where possible, rather than relying on pure physical force.

But despite the fact that police face interpersonal confrontations routinely, little attention has been paid to these issues in South Africa. Other than in policing units responsible for crowd control, police training focuses overwhelmingly on firearm proficiency and lethal force. As a result, many of those who are authorised to apply “minimum force” have a poor grasp of how to do so.

Since its establishment in 2012, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate has received almost 40 000 complaints of the misuse of force by police. The surge in police brutality during the lockdown is then simply a manifestation of an enduring feature of policing in South Africa, one that is generally treated with public indifference. Despite the fact that we have an elaborate machinery for oversight of the police, there is little prospect of any type of accountability for any of the abuses that have been committed.

A crisis of this kind then exposes the limits of what has been achieved in South Africa since the halcyon days of police reform in the late 1990s. It reminds us that, as a result of weak leadership and an absence of meaningful policy development, our policing system has been treading water for the past 20 years.

But the policing excesses that have been a feature of the lockdown also illuminate the fact that we still have some way to go in finding mutually acceptable standards and mechanisms for regulating our society.

In China there were no reports of police violence. But police in China are only the most formal and visible manifestation of an elaborate system of social control, which extends to the potential deduction of “social credits” for conduct that is seen as undesirable.

In Europe the issuing of fines has been the most prominent social-disciplining measure. But in the context of chronic inequality and poverty, and a dysfunctional criminal justice system, the administration of a system of fines is far from a straightforward matter in South Africa. 

As embodied in the reappearance of the sjambok, police brutality, therefore, reflects the superficial nature of police reform in the post-apartheid period. But it also reflects the dilemmas faced by the state in responding to a major public-health crisis in a society with poorly developed systems for self-regulation.

David Bruce is a researcher specialising in policing and public security

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David Bruce
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security

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