A CALL TO UNITE AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY

 

….the Nazis came for the Communists, and I did not speak up, becauseI was not a Communist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist.  Then they came
for the Catholics and I was Protestant so I did not speak up.  Then
they came for me…  By that time there was no one to speak up for anyone.’ [Pastor Niemoller]

 No man is an Iland, intire of itself………. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind’ [John Donne]

 

Horrific as the beating and death of Meleke Andries Tatane was,
it was only a matter of time before the SAP were caught on camera engaging in the type of  gratuitous brutality which has become routine among many of its members. Countless cases of assault, tubing (near suffocation), and damage to property never reach the public spotlight because the victims are poor and powerlessness. In their actions these police members – and the management responsible for their conduct – place themselves above, and show contempt for, the highest law of the land, our Constitution. They also endanger the lives of their colleagues.

While not as insensitive as then minister Jimmy Kruger’s ‘it leaves me cold’ response to Steve Biko’s death, minister Nathi Mthethwa’s comment that Mr Tatane’s death was ‘unfortunate’ must surely go down in history as a completely inappropriate reaction to the death of a human being, especially under such circumstances. Tatane’s death is a major tragedy – for his family, community and the entire country.
Even reported minsiterial comments about provocation and taunting of the
police are reminiscent of the apartheid era. Fifty one years ago the then
government tried to justify the shooting dead of sixty nine people at
Sharpville as the consequence of threat to the police from the protesting
crowd.

Those who think that tough talk and rough action by the police will decrease crime have been misled. Key ingredients in fighting crime are
good intelligence and detective work, and proper, well functioning, forensic
services. Police intelligence was lacking even before the present Mdluli
debacle. Most detectives are poorly trained, and often completely overstretched in terms of case load. Competent detectives achieve convictions without resorting to abuse (which can jeopardise cases in court) Forensic laboratories, like mortuaries services – a crucial component of the fight against crime – are shambolic.

Gaining the trust and confidence of communities is another
key ingredient in combating crime. In far too many communities members have been alienated by their treatment at the hands of those who are supposed, in terms of the constitution, to protect them. They fear the police, and say that they accept that if they are suspects they will be arrested; however, based on personal experience, they are scared that they will be tortured or killed by police who arrest them.  There have even been threats in some places that if the police keep behaving in this way they will be attacked. An increase in attacks on police will set in motion an even more dangerous spiral of violence, and the lives of those countless members who strive to do their jobs properly will be placed in further jeopardy.

The ICD is clearly not coping. It lacks sufficient investigators, and experiences training and management problems. New legislation giving the oversight body more powers is step in right direction but it is deeply flawed because it does not remove it from the control of the Ministry for Safety and Security. Like the minister and the national commissioner, the head of the civilian Secretariat is a political appointee, falling under the same ministry. Any body investigating the police must be independent of this ministry.

While the ANC has condemned what happened to Mr Tatane, without
action its response is mere rhetoric. The question is, what is it doing about
endemic police brutality? It is the ANC as the governing party which must
accept responsibility for encouraging this type of conduct, by deliberately
fostering a military, ‘shoot to kill’ policing culture. Does it not know that
many of its own supporters are sick and tired of being abused by members of the police, and not seeing justice done to them in the courts?

Like those in Nazi Germany who were not Jews, communists or trade unionists, people who have not experienced the gross excesses of the police first hand should bear in mind that unless something is done no one will
be safe. To make matters worse, if the Promotion of Access to Information Act is passed into law, the type of media coverage which exposed police conduct in Meqheleng township may well be restricted in terms of the ‘national interest’ (which, of course, is often indistinguishable from the interests of the governing party).

The solution lies in the hands of civil society – media, faith based organisations, advocacy NGOs – and voters. As happens in established democracies, the conduct of the police, and the suitability for office of those accountable for it (the national minister and commissioner) must become an election issue. Service delivery is important, but is of no use to the dead. It is bad enough to have to guard incessantly against criminals, without having to fear abuse and death from those who should be protecting the public and spending their time and resources in the prosecution of criminals.