Police brutality has emerged as a serious issue of national concern


The death of Andries Tatane in 2011, the Marikana massacre in 2012, and the recent fatal shooting of Natheniël Julies have one thing in common ‑ they involved acts of what can be called police brutality. The issue of police brutality has emerged as a serious issue of national concern. Given the widespread concerns about crime and criminality in South Africa, the historical and contemporary context of policing and law enforcement has a significant impact on not only the South African Police’s (SAPS) ability to police crime but also the public’s perceptions of how they police.

In June 2020, the National Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, reported in Parliament that 49 cases of police brutality had been reported since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown regulations. Cele said that while the police were allowed by law to act with deadly force, they were also bound to act within the law and the Constitution. And this is where we find the dilemma of formal policing in South Africa, especially in relation to another issue of national concern, namely gangsterism and gang violence.

A transformed police

Starting with the wider historical and contemporary context of policing, after 1994, the transformation of the SAPS to bring it in line with the new democratic principles of the new dispensation was a matter of priority. For the majority of South Africans, the police were viewed as the brutal enforcers of the apartheid state, concerned more with carrying out and enforcing the oppressive objectives of the apartheid government rather than serving and protecting the public. It was thus imperative, in order to restore the public’s trust in the police, that the police service be transformed. However, despite the structural and legislative transformations of the police, subsequent acts and incidents involving the police have served to equate the post-1994 “transformed” police service with that of the apartheid state. In addition to the much-publicised incidents alluded to earlier (as well as many others), reports of police mismanagement, corruption and criminality within the highest levels of the police service itself, have reinforced negative perceptions of the police. It remains to be seen what impact the SAPS Amendment Bill of 2020 will have on the SAPS going forward. Will this legislative amendment only addresses the issues superficially, or will it get to the root causes of the current challenges facing the SAPS?

On the other end of the spectrum, gangsterism and gang violence in South Africa also have a historical and contemporary context, too complex to go into any great detail here. Suffice to say that the gang challenge in many contemporary South African communities is not a recent phenomenon, but is a deeply entrenched issue, so rooted in these communities that it cannot simply be rooted out using a heavy-handed law enforcement approach. Gangsterism forms a significant part of the social and cultural contexts of the communities in which it exists and is a manifestation of the same historical and contemporary structural violence and marginalisation of these communities.

Consequences of conflict between police and gang-affected communities

When the police and gang-affected communities come into conflict, the dynamics that are exposed can have a range of consequences. In the Western Cape, for example, we have seen the emergence of community-based anti-gang and anti-crime vigilante organisations such as People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad). In Eldorado Park, we witnessed the fatal shooting of Natheniël Julies, leading to community outrage and anger against the police. In the northern areas of Port Elizabeth, we see communities demonstrating a lack of co-operation with police investigating gang-related cases, even going as far as helping known gang members to evade police detection, or hiding illegal weapons and firearms. And in the Free State, in September, provincial police spokesperson, Brigadier Motantsi Makhele indicated that at least 12 people were arrested in connection with gang wars. Yet gang violence continues, despite police intervention.

So the question is: what can be done about the problems of police brutality and gangsterism?

There is no simple answer. Also, a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not be effective. However, recognising and addressing the following factors may be a step in the right direction:

  1. Studies of police culture that address the root causes of police brutality should be prioritised, and the results of such studies taken seriously.
  2. The police must become aware of the historical and contemporary issues affecting their current public perception.
  3. Serious attention needs to be given to police leadership and management, starting from the Ministry of Police down to branch level.
  4. A holistic approach to addressing gangsterism should be encouraged, rather than making it solely a law enforcement issue.
  5. The politicisation of gangsterism and policing should make way for policies and recommendations based on thorough social scientific research.

Police brutality and gang-related crime are not unique to South Africa, nor are they only challenges in “developing” countries. The US, Australia and in the UK and France, cases of police brutality and gang-related violence have been well documented. In fact, these countries have also not yet found viable and sustainable ways of addressing these challenges. What makes South Africa unique is our specific context that underpins these challenges. So any sustainable solution(s) will have to be based on a fundamental understanding of this context. For as long as this is ignored, any efforts to curb police brutality in the carrying out of their duties, or effective policing of gangs that does not violate human rights, will remain unrealised and will maintain the current levels of distrust between the public and the police.

Opinion article by Prof Theodore Petrus, Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State (UFS).