Editorial: South African cops need policing

Judging by evidence presented in the trial of three Eldorado Park police officers — Caylene Whiteboy, Simon “Scorpion” Ndyalvane and Vorster Netshiongolo — it’s fair to say that in South Africa, the poor are neither to be seen nor heard. 

And should they make their presence known, the police are at hand to ensure they are swiftly and decisively dealt with. Police brutality is no secret in South Africa. With an underfunded and thinly-stretched police watchdog mired in controversy and a police force encouraged towards violence, the killing of a 16-year-old with Down syndrome was bound to happen.

The trio are accused of the fatal shooting of Nathaniel Julies outside his home in Eldorado Park, Gauteng, on 26 August last year. Testimony in the trial has rekindled questions about the police service’s heavy-handedness in public order exercises and the ease with which police officers attempted to plant evidence to absolve themselves of murder. More importantly, however, should be the conversation about what happened after the boy was gunned down. 

It would be entertaining if it wasn’t so tragic. The similarities between the Hollywood blockbuster Training Day and court transcripts are uncanny. Both feature an antagonistic, and seemingly corrupt senior cop and his outlawed ammunition, a fresh graduate trainee on a lawless enforcement operation and a cover-up that went wrong.

The impunity with which the police operate on a daily basis has been laid bare time and again, even before Andries Tatane’s death in 2011 during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in the Free State or the SAPS-style public order policing we witnessed in Marikana.

The implementation of Covid-19 protocols has notched the use of excessive force by law enforcement further up the public consciousness but it is simply not enough. 

The extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic may have jolted the public into awareness, but public trust in those asked to enforce the law has been waning for some time — with good reason. According to the Victims of Crime survey for 2017-18, published by Statistics South Africa, public approval of the police was at 54.2%, a drop of 10% over seven years. Further proof of the erosion of trust comes from the World Economic Forum, which, also in 2018, reported that South Africans rated the reliability of our police services to “enforce law and order” at 118th of 137 countries. 

The killing of Nathaniel Julies is an example of the structural issues in the police service and how badly there is a need for reform. It is clear that there is an inherent disconnect between the mandate of law enforcement and the perception of the execution of their duties. Many neighbourhoods such as the one Nathaniel grew up in fear the police instead of looking to them as a source of protection; they are seen as the aggressors and a source of crime. 

Although none of this is new, it is incumbent on us to not accept this as normal. Poverty is not a moral failing and police violence is not deserved for not having means. The tools and the research to fix this recurring problem are there. What is lacking is political will.

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