Police, Police Guns and Gendered Violence

NEGLIGENCE: If a police officer is not using his/her weapon, it should be safely stowed away. Picture: Reuters

Policing in South Africa carries a particularly violent history. In the past it was used as an instrument of repression and a means to curtail rights and freedoms. Its history is  one of a police force policing communities rather than one serving and protecting communities. As a result there is a historical, and enduring,distrust of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Police officers are confronted with a pervasive and malevolent cultural legacy of respect, discipline and authority. This legacy is derived from authoritarian practices found in colonialism and Apartheid-style para-military policing. It grooms toxic masculinity so that even in the face of severe trauma and violence there is a constant call to follow orders, display discipline and not show “weakness”. This has severe mental health risks such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. For women that are in relationships (familial or romantic) with these police officers there are additional risks. In South Africa women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by a stranger.

In South Africa the violence in many familial or romantic disputes is amplified when firearms are at hand. This violence is more often than not directed towards women. Firearms are used to kill, rape and to threaten and intimidate women.

When police officers, often traumatised but not-counseled, likely versed in toxic masculinity, are allowed to bring their firearms home, their family and romantic partners are potentially being put in harm’s way  

On 27 June 2018 the Constitutional Court delivered judgment on a case pertaining to domestic violence by a police officer. The court had to  rule whether or not the Minister of Police should be held liable when a police officer, in this instance Johannes Mongo, shot an intimate partner with a police issued firearm.

Mongo, while on a break during his shift, had supper with his girlfriend, Elsa Booysen’s family. After supper, and without warning, Mongo shot Booysen in the face, then turned the firearm on himself and committed suicide. Booysen sustained injuries to her face but recovered. While the majority judgment dismissed the leave to appeal, in a minority judgement Justice Zondo provided  analysis that refocused the role and responsibility of police officers in South Africa.

In the judgment Justice Zondo argues that Mongo and the Minister of Police have constitutional and statutory obligations towards Booysen: “to protect her and prevent harm to her, to respect, promote, protect and fulfil her fundamental right in section 12(1)(c) of the Constitution to be free from all forms of violence”.

When police officers are issued with firearms, it is their obligation to protect. When Mongo shot Booysen he violated her constitutional right to freedom from all forms of violence. And while Booysen’s case is unique insofar that the deceased showed no previous violent behaviour, it is reflective of a growing trend in South Africa of police officers committing murder-suicides.

An immediate solution to this problem is for the SAPS to prioritise the mental health of their employees and to take gun control more seriously. Research undertaken by GunFreeSA has found that legal gun ownership significantly increases the risk of intimate femicide-suicide (the killing of a female by her intimate partner followed by the suicide of the perpetrator within a week of the homicide), with two-thirds (66%) of intimate femicide-suicide perpetrators legally owning a gun. Section 98 of the Firearms Control Act states that members of the SAPS and security company employees “must-at the end of each period of his or her duty, return the firearm in question to the place of storage designated for this purpose by the Official Institution”.

An exception to this would only be permissible if the the firearm permit indicates otherwise. But this is not standardised practice, or practiced uniformly. Police officers who return their firearms to storage before heading home are the exception. In 2012 Parliament also expressed a concern in the rise of SAPS members using their service firearms to commit murder and suicide. Sadly they have proposed few proactive measures to make sure that the violence perpetrated by police officers with their service weapons is mitigated.

There is an urgent need to reevaluate the relationship the SAPS has with communities. What strategy is the SAPS set to employ to combat the violence of gendered crimes? Especially when this gendered violence has been and is being perpetrated by South African Police Service members too.

How can a policing service operate effectively if those who it is mandated to protect do not feel safe. What does this mean for women who are in intimate relationships with police officers? What does it mean for the legitimacy of the criminal justice system if women are at the receiving end of violence from police officers, who target individuals with state issued service pistols?

These are urgent and important questions the SAPS and the State need to grapple with and answer. As communities we need to hold them to account. We should do so to ensure greater justice for Elsa Booysen, for every woman who has been threatened with a firearm by an intimate partner and for the families of our policemen and women who live with the impact of secondary trauma and in homes where state issued firearms are readily at hand.


Khadija Bawa is working as a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition in Khayelitsha located in Cape Town, South Africa