from Africa in Transition

Anger at South Africa’s Police

March 04, 2013

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The South African police on February 28 “allegedly” tied a Mozambican cab driver, Medo Macia, to the back of a truck and dragged him to the police station where he died. Apparently, the cab driver had parked his vehicle in a way that blocked traffic. I say “alleged;” but the video of the atrocity (the images are disturbing) is clear, and it has gone viral in South Africa and elsewhere–the New York Times ran the story on February 28.

The incident took place in Daveyton, a black township outside Johannesburg. Earlier in the month, the incompetency of the investigative and forensics skills of the police was highlighted at the bail hearing for Oscar Pistorius, the celebrated double amputee gold medal athlete accused of murdering his girlfriend. Last year, the police were involved in, or responsible for, the deaths of Marikana platinum mine workers, an incident that riveted national and international attention and is still under investigation.

Apparent police brutality recalls some of the worst abuses of the apartheid era; South Africans remember that Steve Biko, a founder of the black consciousness movement and a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, also died in police custody. Prominent South Africans are using the Pistorius case, and the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen on February 1, to highlight violence against women.

In Biko’s time, the police force was white-dominated and mostly deployed to protect whites. It was known for its brutality against blacks and opponents of the apartheid regime. Since the end of apartheid, white police have been bought-out or pensioned off, and the national police force now is almost entirely black. The years following the end of apartheid saw a massive increase in crime, perhaps analogous to a similar wave in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A consequence was the Mandela and Mbeki governments greatly expanded the size of the police force, but without provision for adequate training and equipping. Official rhetoric too, at time encouraged police brutality.

However, South Africa, a genuine democracy, has self-correcting mechanisms lacking in non-democratic states. The Macia atrocity has been denounced by President Jacob Zuma and eight policemen have been arrested. In the Pistorius case the judge was publicly scathing about the performance of the police. Civil society, very powerful in South Africa, and the media is thoroughly seized with the issue of policing and police brutality. That is not to say that reform of the police will happen quickly or easily, any more than extensive gun control in the United States, even in the aftermath of the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. The institutions and processes, however, are in place in South Africa for such reform to occur. This incident may prove, as Newtown has in the U.S., a watershed of public and political will for reform.