South Africa’s police chase their own tails

A dog chasing its own tail does not want to catch it. It enjoys the power of being able to pretend. In many ways, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), South African Police Services (SAPS) and the various metropolitan police have been chasing their tails. There is no significant accountability for any abuse of power, violence against civilians, extrajudicial killings or various other crimes they commit. They are responsible for holding themselves accountable and they revel in the power of being able to pretend to.

Collins Khosa was recently killed, allegedly due to an assault by the SANDF and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD). They claim Khosa violated lock down restrictions. The SANDF’s internal report lays bare how unaccountable the army is.

This internal inquiry exonerated the SANDF soldiers claiming there was no link between Khosa’s death and their assault. It relied on a post-morten report which concluded that Khosa’s cause of death was due to blunt force to his head, but did not connect this cause to the SANDF. They argue Khosa was conscious by the time the soldiers had left and so the soldiers could not have been the cause of death.

This report does not deny that the soldiers assaulted Khosa. In fact, they blame Khosa for the assault, claiming he provoked the soldiers. They also acknowledge that investigations are still ongoing. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula claimed that more processes would still follow. But the language of the internal inquiry was clear. The army does not think the army has done anything wrong.

Following the Marikana massacre, a commission of inquiry was established to, among other things, hold the police accountable. This resulted in a 2015 report. However, its recommendations were nonbinding. It was up to the police to implement them.

The report advised discontinuing the use of assault rifles for public order policing. This was because these weapons are discouraged in international law and at close range are guaranteed deadly. The report states, that a .556 round fired at close range is “virtually and per definition a kill shot.” The report also advised the training of all officers in first-aid (as in done in Northern Ireland) and to have senior police trained specifically in public order policing (because the senior leaders involved in the Marikana massacre had no experience in public order policing).

In 2019, experts claimed that none of the report’s recommendations were implemented. No police officer has been prosecuted for the massacre. The dog stopped chasing.

This is no surprise to anyone that understands the core structural problem. The Marikana report’s largest criticism of South Africa’s police was its leadership. Instead of appointing police leaders who are experienced law and justice practitioners, police appointments in South Africa are politically-motivated. There is also an emphasis on hierarchical centralised decision making and a paramilitary style police organisation.

This explains why the police has made no progress in addressing abuse of power, violence and brutality. The police leaders who are meant to be enforcing changes are inadequate, complicit or themselves implicated. Making effective changes to the police would mean removing these leaders, which is clearly against their interests. Effectively, we are asking culprits to turn themselves in. We are asking the dog to bite its tail.

In 2009, National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele radicalised the police services ordering them to “shoot to kill.” This radicalisation culminated in the senseless killing of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in 2011. The following year, the police massacred workers in Marikana. Cele is now the South African Minister of Police.

Bheki Cele

There were many reports of police abuse during national students protests from 2015 – 17. This included a 2018 report from the University of the Free State about police and private security violence. This followed a 2017 report on police violence at the university. Both reports were nonbinding and none of the report’s serious recommendations have been implemented.

In 2019, the Mail & Guardian revealed the extent of internal sexual assault in the army and sexual assault by SANDF officers in the DRC. Notably, internal mechanisms to address this problem failed and it was clear that the military was unable to hold itself accountable.

Solving these issues with the SAPS and the SANDF requires an overhaul of its leadership, the banning of assault weapons, the mandatory inclusion of civilian courts and judiciary in military matters, the overhaul of oversight bodies like the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and extensive training in first-response, first-aid and public policing for all officers.

But these bodies won’t do this on their own. In fact, they cannot. No matter how long a dog chases its tail, it will always be unable to catch it.

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