Johannesburg – It has been 10 years since Andries Tatane was shot dead by a police rubber bullet during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg, Free State.
The focus on police conduct has heightened since the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba, a civilian who was shot dead, allegedly by a police rubber bullet, when he found himself in the line of fire when protesting Wits University students clashed with police in the streets of Johannesburg recently.
He had just visited a medical facility before he was shot dead.
In the case of Tatane, who was shot dead on this day 10 years ago, the teacher and community activist was beaten with batons and shot twice in the chest when he tried to block a police water cannon during the service delivery protest.
The seven police officers who were charged for murder and assault were acquitted in the Ficksburg Regional Court, eight years ago.
But there have been at least 1500 other people, who, like Tatane and Ntumba, allegedly, died at the hands of police.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) reports show that in the past six financial years, 1506 police officers were investigating for killing citizens – or ‘death as a result of police action’ – as Ipid puts it in its reports.
The most deaths took place in the 2015/16 and 2017/18 financial years, with 470 and 459 deaths and investigations opened in that year.
The Ipid reports further show that the police watchdog has also investigated over 4132 cases, where police officers – either from the South African Police Service or municipal traffic authorities – discharged an official firearm.
The 2017/18 financial year had the most complaints, with over 1366 complaints filed against police officers in that year, while 408 were filed in 2014/15, 959 cases were reported in 2015/16, 805 cases in 2016/17, 337 in 2018/19 and 257 cases in 2019/20.
Professor Jean Steyn, a University of Zululand and University of KwaZulu-Natal-based criminal justice, criminology and forensic expert, said it was concerning that police officers in South Africa and around the world were exerting a disproportionate level of violence on members of the public.
“If you look at South Africa, there seems to be a greater tendency to use disproportionate violence. I find that very concerning, alternate methods of problem-solving are not coming to the fore,” he said.
Steyn said the police service was spending lots of money on human resources and training, in a bid to bring the police and the public together.
“But, unfortunately, the gap between the police and the public is widening, which is concerning because a lot of money is spent.
“You can never discount our past, the relationship with apartheid – you have to realise that this generation of police is still impacted by apartheid.
“If we do not address the issues around inequality, discrimination, we are not going to move forward. Inequality, poverty and unemployment have a direct correlation between the two, but this does not mean police should be violent, they should be less violent,” he said.
Steyn said in a bid to reinvigorate the police service, more women should be absorbed into policing, but he said this was not happening at a rate he had expected it to.
“It is important to deploy more women in the police, women tend to talk more, they reflect around a problem. I was expecting more women to join the police, but it is not happening,” he said.
Steyn also said there was a police culture issue, where new police recruits were encouraged at the station level to discount what they had been taught and were urged to learn the ways of the “streets” – often, he said, by more experienced officers who occupied senior positions.
He said adopting a new culture of policing with the old guard still around, would prove difficult.
On the issue of Police Minister Bheki Cele and his abrasive style of leadership, Steyn urged the minister to lead from the front, with humility and not arrogance.
“We do need a strong person to lead the police. Cele has been the national commissioner, but, African culture emphasises humility, not dominance and arrogance.
“Most are recognising that behaviour as arrogance, and that is a problem for the minister.
“We need a strong man, and he is a strong man, we need more humility than arrogance, he needs to be humble, be empathetic and show humility towards everyone,” he said.
Meanwhile, a recent report by a panel of experts probing policing and crowd management in South Africa has recommended that public order policing (POP) should fall under one command centre to help avoid the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades to deal with protesters.
The Sunday Independent reported last week that the panel was established following the Marikana massacre in August 2012, which resulted in the death of 34 miners after police fired live ammunition at the protesting workers.
“This would mean they would generally be deployed at the request and in support of a provincial commissioner, but that the head of POP, acting on behalf of the national commissioner, would be able to ensure their operational readiness as a specialised unit is maintained in a consistent manner in line with section 17 (2) of the Act,” it said.
More on the panel report here.