A few days into South Africa’s nationwide lockdown, I tweeted about what was happening in my street. Police weren’t monitoring people along it, so there were lots of cars driving by, families were out walking and teenagers were congregating to smoke. A few well-meaning people who saw my tweets sent me messages saying I should call the police to report what was going on. I didn’t. But someone on the street clearly did because the police eventually arrived and cleared everyone out. Joggers, walkers and smokers went back to their homes and cars drove away.
My refusal to call the police in a situation like this is because of the history of abuse and excessive use of force by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and concern that deploying them to enforce lockdown regulations would lead to brutality and extortion. This concern was affirmed within a few days of the lockdown when a number of videos and photos shared on social media showed the police humiliating people in various ways and, in some instances, getting physical. By the fourth day of the lockdown, two people had been allegedly killed by police which was equal to the number of people who had died from Covid-19.
The police brutality was again recently confirmed by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), the police watchdog, as they briefed Parliament on police actions during this period.
According to the body, between March 26, which is when the lockdown started, until May 5, they received a total of 828 complaints against the police. The majority of the complaints were for assault, with 25 for torture and 79 for the discharge of official police firearms. In the same period, 10 deaths were recorded due to police action or — as in the case of Collins Khosa — police inaction, after he died as a result of allegedly being assaulted in the front yard of his Alexandra home by South African National Defence Force soldiers and Johannesburg metro police.
It is important to bear in mind that these are only reported complaints and also that Ipid is a body that has been accused of covering up the extent of police brutality in the country. So, the figures given may not necessarily reflect all incidents.
Despite this, the minister of police, Bheki Cele, who encouraged the heavy handedness of the police, has continued to defend their conduct.
Consistent with the behaviour of the police, even before the lockdown, the excessive use of force has mostly been experienced by poor, black people. Like the woman who was arrested in Soweto, reportedly for selling atchar without a permit. And it is predominantly black people who are unable to work from home, who are retrenched, laid off or receiving no pay during lockdown, which makes it even harder to abide by the lockdown rules.
Given that street traders and waste reclaimers are some of the people who regularly use the street on which I live, which is also home to migrants and some people who are distributing food to those in need, I do not call the police when I witness violations of lockdown rules. They are all people who are much more likely to be terrorised or arrested by the police than those driving past in fancy cars or white joggers violating the lockdown rules.
To be sure, even with my strongly held position on the police, I have a lot to unlearn. In the past few weeks I have occasionally retweeted, with glee, the odd story about people — who would ordinarily not be bothered by the police — being arrested, such as the blonde dog walker who tried to run away. Also, the seemingly harmless jokes about what the police should be doing to people in Seapoint. But, I have come to realise that my “kikikis”’ are, in fact, a tacit endorsement of the very same heavy-handed police behaviour I am opposed to.
As I unlearn and work on my recent knee-jerk tendency to accept as fact the brutality that exists, I will continue to consider it my civic duty not to call the police when witnessing lockdown violations.
At the same time, I know that individual actions such as me not calling them are not enough to end police brutality. Collectively, we must call for a stop to the police’s use of force both during the lockdown and beyond.