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Editorial: Enforce the law lawfully

Last week a Free State journalist was forced to flee to Lesotho after accusing local police of assault. Paul Nthoba was covering the visibility of police officers enforcing lockdown regulations in the township of Meqheleng.

The South African National Editors Forum said Nthoba was physically abused and beaten up. He then went to the Ficksburg police station to lay a charge, but instead of being assisted by the police, he faced further abuse. Remember, Ficksburg is also where the brutality of the police led to the death of activist Andries Tatane.

Seven years after the National Prosecuting Authority bungled the Tatane case, the ability of the state to police itself remains questionable. And the question of justice for those who make serious allegations against the police endures.

Nthoba is alleged to have been prevented from opening an assault case in Ficksburg and was instead told that he should be charged for contravening the Disaster Management Act.

In Lesotho, he is under the protection of the United Nations. A full investigation into these allegations is urgent.  It is concerning that the officers who allegedly assaulted him are said to still be on duty, despite a meeting with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

It is especially unfortunate that Ntoba’s experience of the police is not unique. Many, many South Africans can attest to the police using extremely heavy-handed tactics on ordinary protesting citizens, like Tatane, or indeed striking mine workers in Marikana. During this lockdown, at least nine South Africans have died at the hands of the security forces.

And so the judgment last week by Judge Hans Fabricius, which ordered that the ministers of defence and police must ensure that their ministries lodge court reports about the internal investigations into the death of Collins Khosa, and any other investigation into “the treatment of any other person whose rights may have been infringed during the state of disaster at the hands of the SANDF, the SAPS and/or any MPD [metropolitan police department]” is especially important.

In response to the ruling, the police have released guidelines which say, among other things, that “a member who uses force for any other purpose (such as to punish or teach a suspect a lesson) may be guilty of an offence, such as assault, assault GBH [with intent to do grievous bodily harm], attempted murder etc.”

This is a start. But until the law itself makes it nigh impossible for tragedies like Tatane, Marikana and Khosa to occur without real consequence, our fractured relationship with authority will persist.

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