Police brutality is government policy

The cases of brutal enforcement of the Covid-19 lockdown wasn’t the work of a few bad apples but was rather part of an unofficial policy of police violence. The directive was, as the minister in charge of the South African Police Service (SAPS) said 20 years ago: “When we visit criminals we will not treat them with kid gloves … We will unleash the police force on them.” 

Police Minister Bheki Cele didn’t give that directive — it was Steve Tshwete, a former safety and security minister. In 1999, he launched “a war on crime” when he said: “We are going to deal with criminals in the same way that a bulldog deals with a bull … We are going to give them hell.”

But the police were already giving people hell back then. And they never stopped.

The Brixton murder and robbery unit tortured Lucy Themba, 54, and Charlotte Pharamela, 24, in June 1996 with beatings, suffocation and electric shocks. Siphiwe Zide, 16, died in police custody on April 10 2000 in Barkly East: the police drove their van over his head. Thabo Mabaso, a journalist, went to Gugulethu police station to report a minor traffic accident on June 27 1998: the police assaulted him so badly that he lost an eye.

First beaten by soldiers of the South African National Defence Force in his Soweto home on September 5 1998 and then transferred to the police station in Germiston, Zweli Kenneth Ndlozi, 22, was found dead in his cell on September 7. A forensic pathologist examined his badly injured body, which appeared to have cigarette burns, and declared the cause of death to be “consistent with hanging — torture not excluded”.


David Bruce, then a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said in a 2002 report on police brutality that, from April 1998 to March 1999, the Independent Complaints Directorate (now the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Ipid) recorded “1 051 cases of deaths as a result of police action, 468 cases of attempted murder and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, 128 cases of torture and 736 cases of common assault”.

Two decades later, not much has changed. A 2019 Viewfinder exposé in the GroundUp news site into police violence revealed that between April 2012 and March 2019 Ipid recorded 42 365 criminal complaints. The claims against the police were serious: murder and death in custody. 

And Ipid’s budget was slashed. 

With just 531 criminal convictions from the 42 365 complaints, either South Africans are going out of their way to tell a whole bunch of outrageous lies or the state isn’t all that interested in doing something about police brutality. 

In 2015, the police minister, Nathi Nhleko, unlawfully suspended Ipid head Robert McBride. Why? McBride had been trying to make the directorate function. According to McBride’s recent testimony at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, police crime intelligence officers moved into Ipid during his 18-month suspension. 

Police ministers don’t talk about how, according to the World Economic Forum, South Africa ranks 121 out of 144 countries in terms of police reliability. 

Nor do they talk about implementing police reform as per the National Development Plan, which calls for a demilitarised and professional force. Without such, crime rates will not decrease.

Instead, and as they have done for the past 20 years, ministers just keep on endorsing violence and the police keep on obliging. In a 2017 speech to Parliament, police minister Fikile Mbalula said: “We must declare war against crime. We must declare crime as domestic terrorism.” In 2008, deputy safety and security minister Susan Shabangu told the police: “You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility.” 

Echoing Tshwete’s instruction to police members in 2000 that criminals are “subhumans”, the deputy police minister in 2015, Maggie Sotyu, instructed the police to: “Treat heinous criminals as outcasts, who must neither have place in the society nor peace in their cells! They must be treated as cockroaches!”

Nazis called Jews cockroaches during World War II. Hutus called Tutsis cockroaches during the Rwandan genocide. The Hong Kong police are calling pro-democracy protesters cockroaches. The philosopher David Livingstone Smith recently pointed out in The Washington Post that “this sort of derogatory language can lead to a deeper kind of genuine dehumanisation. You call people cockroaches a lot, you start thinking that they are subhuman.” 

And where does President Cyril Ramaphosa sit in all of this? He brought shoot-to-kill Cele back from the wilderness. Mbalula is his transport minister; Sotyu is the deputy minister of arts, culture and sport, and her boss, Nathi Mthethwa, was police minister when mineworkers were killed in 2012 at Marikana. Their law enforcement strategy is well-known: the police must beat and kill those it sees as criminals. 

Just one cabinet reshuffle, a mere flick of a pen, is required to bring in politicians committed to police reform. If Ramaphosa doesn’t do that, then he can only but be in agreement with an unofficial policy of police violence in a lost war on crime.

Tristen Taylor is a research associate in the unit for environmental ethics in the department of philosophy at Stellenbosch University. He writes in his personal capacity

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Tristen Taylor
Dr. Tristen Taylor is a South African journalist, researcher and academic. He is a National Geographic Explorer and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. https://thanatos.co.za

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