Police in South Africa still have a reputation for brutality

In 1994, the world rejoiced as Nelson Mandela was elected as President of South Africa – after decades of struggle the era of apartheid was finally over. But no-one was expecting racism to disappear over night, and over the past 18 years disproportionate policing has never been too far away.

The police have maintained their reputation for being heavy-handed. In 2010 alone, there were 1,769 complaints of people dying either in police custody or as a result of police action. Half of the police officers convicted of a criminal offense in 2011 were convicted in connection to the death of a citizen. At least 20 unarmed protesters have been killed by police since 2000. One of these, Andries Tatane (pictured above), was a teacher who joined a protest over poor local services in 2011. He was beaten and shot twice in the chest with rubber bullets. Twenty minutes later he died on the street. The whole incident was caught on camera.

Torture is commonplace. One victim, who claims he was beaten and tasered for 12 hours, says the officers who tortured him greet him in the street. Despite a successful legal case, the officers remain in their jobs and the victim is petrified that he’ll relive the nightmare. Peter Jordi, an associate professor of law at the University of Witwatersrand, has said that “torture is spiralling out of control”. There have even been cases when police officers accused of torture have been promoted. When I asked Professor Jordi why this happens he said, “Probably because the leadership of the police approve of harsh policing methods, some of them may have engaged in torture themselves”. He even said that in South Africa “the political leadership is putting pressure on the police to treat suspects as a dog does a bone.”

Last year it came out that police cadets are routinely assaulted during training, and as one retired police officer has said, “If the police are trained with verbal and physical abuse, there is a strong possibility that they will act that way towards communities”.

Police brutality was seen at the strikes at the Marikana platinum mine earlier this year. Most of the 34 miners who were killed were shot in the back, that is, as they were fleeing. Some of the miners who were arrested in the chaos have accused the police of torturing them in custody.

These stories and statistics are clearly horrible, but are they a result of racism? Most of the victims of police brutality are black, but those of African descent also make up most of South Africa’s population. To make things clearer we should look at the makeup of the South African Police Service: in 2009 ‘Africans’ made up 79.4% of the total population, but only made up 60.4% of police employees; by contrast, ‘Whites’ made up 9.1% of the population but 26.7% of police employees. If the police better reflected the population, South Africans would be more confident that they will be treated fairly. At the rank of superintendent (which, tellingly, has since been renamed lieutenant-colonel), 27.5% were ‘African’ whereas 61.2% were ‘White’. Most police officers patrolling the streets are black, but most of the ‘higher-ups’ who give the orders are white.

Sibusiso Ntuli, a criminal justice expert, claims that, “The majority of black and white police officials will stop a young black male in South Africa dressed ‘suspiciously’ and driving an expensive car while a white male in exactly the same condition will go by without even being noticed”. This of course means that many black men are harassed by the police simply because of the colour of their skin.

There have been cases of very overt racism. In 1998 six white policemen from the North East Rand dog unit set their dogs on three black men. As they were being mauled, the police shouted racist abuse at them. The ordeal went on for at least 45 minutes. Bizarrely, one of the officers filmed the incident and they refer to it as a “training film”. The video came to light in 2000 and the officers were subsequently arrested and jailed for 4-5 years.

The situation may be much better now in the Rainbow Nation than it was twenty years ago, but many South Africans feel that not enough has changed. When I asked Professor Jordi whether he was confident that disproportionate policing would eventually disappear from South Africa, he simply said, “No”. But thankfully we have reason to hope that, through democracy and gradual adjustment to the paradigm shift, racism in South Africa’s police will one day be a thing of the past.