Confronting police power

Accountability—insofar as it ever existed within the South African Police Service—has been reduced to a merely theoretical concept. It is time this changed.

Police chase. Image credit Roan Fourie via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Mthokozisi Ntumba was 35 years old when he was shot to death with rubber bullets by the police on March 10, 2021. Ntumba was leaving a doctor’s appointment at a clinic in Braamfontein and was hit during a South Africa Police Service’s (SAPS) public order policing unit confrontation with students from the University of the Witwatersrand, who were protesting fee increases and historical debt. In the trial of the four police officers accused of firing on the protesting students, which led to Ntumba’s death, evidence was presented by an investigating officer with the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directive (IPID)—in the form of six white rubber bullet cartridges belonging to the SAPS unit, placing them at the scene.

Despite this, the four officers charged with murder and attempted murder in the Ntumba case were acquitted of all charges on July 5th, 2022. They are expected to resume their duties, just like the seven officers charged and later acquitted in the killing of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in April 2011. Tatane, 33 at the time, was shot in the chest at close range by police firing rubber bullets during the protest.

South Africa has a long, gruesome history of police violence and police brutality against protesters—from those refusing to comply with pass laws during apartheid, to those protesting for the provision of adequate government services post-1994, to workers demanding a living wage. In fact, a century before the Marikana Massacre, in June and July 1913, the newly minted state security forces brutally suppressed strike action across dozens of mines in the Witwatersrand region. Of the 25 people killed over several weeks, 11 were mine workers.

The police have often, if not always, been used as a tool by the political and business elite to enforce a regime of brutal racial capitalism in South Africa, with no real recourse for the people they are sent out to contain and control.

Over multiple chapters in my book Can We Be Safe? The future of policing in South Africa, I examine, in detail, the particularly racialised and racist police violence and brutality that poor, Black and working-class South Africans are subjected to daily. The police show us over and over again that they are perfectly capable of non-violently policing agitated crowds of white farmers protesting in Senekal in the Free State, or mostly white suburban parents protesting in Brackenfell in the Western Cape. Yet, there is a contemptuous and gratuitous violence that is reserved for residents of communities such as Alexandra, Johannesburg when they call on politicians to honor promises made during elections. The residents of Alexandra could predict this racist police violence with such certainty that they planned a march from their community through Sandton, the most affluent suburb in the city, to hand over a memorandum of grievances to municipal officials, knowing full well that they would not be attacked or fired on with stun grenades or teargas because they were marching through what is often referred to as “the richest square mile in Africa.” The police also seemed to be tellingly absent during the worst act of civil unrest and violence in post-apartheid South African history––the July Insurrection of 2021.

While this violence is seen many times over in some communities, to many white, middle class and wealthy South Africans, police violence and brutality is something that only seems to happen “elsewhere”: at a distant mine shaft or in an under-resourced peri-urban community. As detailed in multiple investigations of police brutality by Daneel Knoetze and the organization Viewfinder, IPID registers thousands of complaints and cases of assault, excessive force and all other types of unlawful behavior by police officers every year, but it also has a dismally low record of successful convictions or dismissals of police officers. Accountability, insofar as it ever existed within the SAPS, has been reduced to a merely theoretical concept.

It does not come as a surprise then that where and when police power is confronted in a court of law, the complainants have done so because they had the time and access to legal services needed to initiate and successfully litigate a civil claim. In the 2020/2021 reporting year, more than 10,000 civil claims were registered against the SAPS, with a value of over R16 billion, according to an annual report tabled in Parliament.

We very clearly have a police service that acts as if it is almost incapable of doing the work of policing without violence and brutality, but it also clearly reserves that violence and brutality for selected victims. It repeatedly targets those who are already at the sharp end of state-sanctioned violence and the violence of neglect and ambivalence from the government that is meant to serve them. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it is a police service that is often complicit with forms of criminal violence, demonstrated most notoriously in the mass selling of firearms  to gangs and members of organized crime.

When police power is confronted by those who have the resources, time, and legal backing to see those confrontations through, it can be held to account and it can be forced to compensate those it victimizes.

But where the victims are those who capitalism and state-sanctioned police power deem to be dispensable, accountability of any kind is desperately difficult to come by. Criminal charges may one day be brought against the police officers who shot and killed 34 people in Marikana on August 16, 2012; but the cases of Mthokozisi Ntumba, Andries Tatane and so many others are a solemn reminder that challenging police power does not always bring justice.

Further Reading