South Africa’s image as a country in which the rule of law is supreme, was badly damaged last week as an amateur video of police brutally went viral on the Internet. Statistics reveal that the number of people who die in police custody has gone up by a massive 365% in the 10 years between 2001/02 and 2011/12. And that is not even the worst statistic.
The most shocking statistic that emerges from an analysis of available figures on the work of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is that only 77 police officers appeared in court resulting from a combined number of deaths in police custody during 2011/12 in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal totalling 485. Even if only one police officer was involved in each of the incidents of death, it represents a prosecution rate of only 15.8%.
In the 77 instances where prosecutions made it to court, only four – or a shocking 5.2% – led to convictions. Convictions as a percentage of the number of incidents of death reported in the two provinces is an appalling 0.08%.
The total number of deaths in police custody during the same period reported to the IPID was 932. KZN was top of the log with 268 deaths, followed by Gauteng with 217.
Interestingly enough, it was in KZN that former national commissioner of police, General Bheki Cele, during his tenure as member of the provincial executive committee (MEC) for community safety,first mooted his philosophy for the police to ‘shoot before being shot’. Later, in 2009 as commissioner, he became famous for his ‘shoot to kill’ instruction to the police.
But Cele was not the only one, or even the first, in a position of authority to express such sentiments. In April 2008, then deputy minister of safety and security Susan Shabangu told an anti-crime meeting in Pretoria that the South African police must shoot to kill and ignore regulations in the battle against one of the worst rates of violent crime in the world.
"You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. I want no warning shots; you have one shot, and it must be a kill shot," she told police officers.
Criticism of this type of war talk in the battle against crime was at the time often met by the quoting of the numbers of police who had died while on duty.
In the initial reaction last week to the video of the handcuffed Mozambican taxi driver, Mido Macia, being dragged behind a police van before he later died in police cells, the spokesperson for the ministry of police, Zweli Mnisi, pointed out that 93 police officers had been killed by criminals last year.
If it were indeed a ‘war’, and the ‘body count’ a measure of success, then the police are winning the war hands down. The number of civilians who have died at the hands of the police over the same period is 10 times the number of police killed while on duty.
Some sanity seemed to have returned to the situation by Friday last week, with the new police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, ordering the suspension of all the policemen involved in the Macia incident. By Friday night, four days after the incident, eight policemen had been arrested and are expected to be charged with murder.
Considering the poor conviction rate to date of police officers involved in such incidents, it is telling that Commissioner Phiyega found it necessary to “remove the current station commander of Daveyton police station from his position so that investigations can proceed uninhibited”.
It is also interesting to note that Independent Complaints Directorate(ICD) statistics indicate that in the 2008-09 financial year, the time of Cele and Shabangu’s ‘shoot to kill’ calls, the police shot and killed 556 people countrywide. At the time it was the greatest number recorded in the 12 years that the ICD had then existed. Since that time, the number has increased by a further 68%.
In a statement last week in reaction to the Macia incident in Daveyton, the South African Centre for Constitutional Rights (CFCR) referred to a case it had brought before the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) against the SA Police Service (SAPS) in 2010 after Chumani Maxwele had been mistreated and his rights violated following a middle-finger gesture at the motorcade of President Jacob Zuma.
The CFCR noted that the SAHRC at the time had found, among others, “...that the minister (of police) should be held vicariously liable for the acts of members and employees of the SAPS who are found to have been acting within the course and scope of their employment”.
It further recommended “that the minister should provide a report to the commission, indicating his plan toward implementing the recommended remedies, namely: that the minister and the SAPS acknowledge the supremacy of the Constitution and the Rule of Law as well as the duty of the State in terms of section 7(2) to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights.
“The commission also recommended that the minister should indicate the steps he would take in terms of section 199(5) of the Constitution to ensure the SAPS acts, teaches and requires its members to act in accordance with the Constitution and the law.
“However, instead of recognising their shortcomings and implementing the SAHRC's recommendations, the minister and the SAPS unsuccessfully appealed the findings on technicalities and, to date, are yet to implement all recommendations.
“Had the minister and the SAPS effectively implemented those recommendations, subsequent incidents might well have been averted. These include the killing of 34 miners at Marikana; the killing of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg; countless allegations of brutality by the SAPS Tactical Response Team (notoriously known as ‘amaBerete’); and now, the death of Mido Macia.”
Meanwhile, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Monday added his voice to that of opposition parties calling for the dismissal of the minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa. He also called for the national police commissioner to be fired.
In a letter to the Cape Times, Kasrils writes that he had warned of increasing police brutality when he had left government four years ago. He had become concerned about “reports of beatings and torture in police cells; the attacks on protest demonstrations; the ‘shoot to kill’ exhortations of police ministers; reports involving police corruption; use of conspiracy theories to deal with opponents of government; and the move to strengthen the powers of the government security cluster by dubious means,” he writes in the letter.