What will it take for the police to stop killing our citizens?

Last Wednesday, images of police heavy handedness swept across local news and social media when Mthokozisi Ntumba was killed during the #WitsAsinamali protest in Braamfontein. A few hours later, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) confirmed that it would conduct preliminary investigations into the allegations that public order police were responsible. 

Four officers were subsequently arrested five days after the incident — an act that has been much welcomed by citizens and civil organisations.

But this is not the first time that police have been caught red-handed on camera, behaving criminally and causing the death of civilians. So far though, presenting hard evidence has repeatedly failed to result in any meaningful consequences for this brutality. 

It is a national crisis that begs the question: what will it take for the police to stop killing citizens?

On Monday, reports of police allegedly using live ammunition and injuring a student in another protest once again made headlines. Ipid confirmed that the organisation will be interviewing the victim, who is currently in hospital. The South African Police Services (SAPS) have denied using live ammunition.

On the same day, Ipid confirmed that the four officers implicated in the killing of  Ntumba will face charges of murder, attempted murder and defeating the ends of justice.  

Commenting on the death of Ntumba, Ipid’s national spokesperson Ndileka Cola told Wits Justice Project: “During the preliminary investigation the directorate has managed to collect numerous witness statements, to confiscate firearms and the same will be taken for ballistic analysis, [a] post mortem to determine actual cause of death will be conducted later this week, family liaison has started and the investigation continues.”

The statement, like many before it, confirms that Ipid is aware of allegations of police misconduct. But this does not mean that it will result in a full investigation by the body, which exists to look into criminal matters that involve the police.

“The directorate has dispatched four investigation officers to probe the allegations,” said Cola.

She added that, “the team will also cordon the crime scene and conduct the investigation including locating the person with the video footage, [and identifying] eye witnesses. If this incident is within the mandate of Ipid, the normal investigation process will unfold”.

At this point, it is not clear how Ipid filters cases to determine which ones fall within their mandate. But, once it takes on a case, a full investigative process is what typically follows.

Upon conclusion of the investigation, Ipid makes recommendations to SAPS to implement its internal disciplinary process.  More serious crimes such as murder and rape are referred to a court of law to prosecute within the mainstream judicial system.

An article by senior Wits Justice Project journalist, Edwin Naidu, however notes that, “95% of cases [investigated by Ipid] over the past seven years [were] closed without any action”.

This can be attributed to a number of factors that characterise the South African justice system, such as poor preservation of evidence, lack of witness accounts, and overall poor implementation of Ipid’s recommendations.

During the 2015-2016 Fees Must Fall protests, the nation watched aghast as police conducted themselves in a manner similar to what we saw last Wednesday.

Back then, civil organisations offered assistance to victims of police brutality. This process involved meticulous documentation of  injuries, witness accounts, forensic reports and digital evidence, such as photos and videos.

One such organisation was the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri). Seri collected evidence during its interactions with students and has published a lengthy report detailing the ways in which police behaved criminally during the protests, the extensive harm law enforcement officers have caused and its traumatic results.

The organisation also provides legal assistance for victims of police violence.

Ordinary citizens, journalists and other civil organisations, in one form or another, have all documented police using excessive and indiscriminate force.

Yet, even when police misconduct results in the death of a citizen, the likelihood of criminal charges resulting in prosecution remains low.

In 2011 police shot Andries Tatane on live television; images and video footage of him clutching his haemorrhaging chest were replayed on countless screens across the country. But the officers who were charged with his murder were acquitted and walked away scot-free.

The same applies to the victims of the Marikana massacre. More than eight years later, the families of the slain miners await justice in what appears to a clear-cut case of police criminality.

And so, as Ipid embarks on the investigation into the murder of Ntumba, statistics provide cold comfort for those holding their breath, hoping for justice to be done.  

When contacted for comment, the police service told Wits Justice Project that their protocol does not permit them to respond to allegations where officers are implicated. In situations like these, where bureaucracy takes over, will organisational discipline be used to stonewall transparency? Will the officers who killed him even face prosecution? Will there ever be any accountability from those entrusted to enforce the law?

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Sumeya Gasa
Sumeya Gasa is a senior journalist at the Wits Justice Project in South Africa. The WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to the criminal justice system.

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