By Kotie Geldenhuys
Selected photos by Ashraf Hendricks/ GroundUp
One recent criminal case against officials of the police that rocked the boat was the murder of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, in Eldorado Park on 26 August 2020 - the teenager had Down's syndrome. Within a week after the incident, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) arrested three police officials and charged them with murder, accessory to murder and defeating the ends of justice. The case is still on trial. This case raised questions such as why some police officials are so brutal and how many children are victims of police brutality?
It is a sad reality that the SAPS is regarded as one of the most brutal police organisations in the democratic world (Stuurman, 2020). The Guardian, in a feature entitled “The Counted”, keeps track of the number of people killed by police action in the USA, where it states that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years”. It claimed that in the first 24 days of 2015, US police shot dead 59 people, whereas police in the United Kingdom and Wales shot dead 54 people in the last 24 years. At the time however, The Guardian admitted that it was not easy to get accurate annual data on how many people were killed due to police action in the USA, but the official count is approximately 930 people per year. This figure however excludes people killed by local law enforcement agencies and therefore the actual number can be approximately 1240. Using this data, GroundUp, a South African-based not-for-profit news agency, compared USA and South African police lethality, by using data of the 2013/2014 financial year from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) (GroundUp, 2015). (IPID is an independent organisation established in terms of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate Act 1 of 2011 (Cano, 2021).) According to IPID, a total of 409 people were killed by police action during 2013. This figure excludes people who died in police custody. GroundUp argues that if an average of 1242 police fatalities occurred annually in the USA and one takes into account that the USA’s population is six times larger than South Africa’s, the SAPS can be regarded as twice as lethal as their USA counterparts (GroundUp, 2015).
According to Viewfinder’s Police Accountability Tracker dashboard, which is an interface to the IPID database, 47 984 complaints were registered against the police between 1 April 2012 and 31 March 2020. Of these, 3198 related to murder and 1923 were as a result of death in custody (Viewfinder, 2020). According to IPID, there were 436 deaths as a result of police action during the 2017/2018 reporting year, compared to 393 deaths as a result of police action during the 2018/2019 reporting year (IPID, 2019). During the 2018/2019 financial year, a total of 5829 cases (IPID, 2019) were recorded against the police (SAPS and Metro Police Department), which include 108 corruption and 214 death in police custody cases. During the 2019/2020 financial year a total of 5640 cases were recorded against the police, which included 84 corruption and 237 death in police custody cases (IPID, 2020). However, not all the complaints on IPID's database can be assumed to be abuses of power as police officials have dangerous jobs and when they use force, they mostly do so legally. But there is no doubt that a number of these cases are real police brutality, despite the claim of the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, in June 2020 when he declared: “In South Africa there is no police brutality… In South Africa there are no cover-ups. There is no link between what happened to George Floyd and here, because it is racial violence by police there and in South Africa it is not racial violence” (Matiwane, 2020). Yet, the 2020/2021 Annual Report of IPID paints a different picture than what the Minister of Police implied in June 2020, as 4228 cases relating to assault and an additional 256 cases of torture were registered with IPID (IPID, 2021).
The role of politics in police brutality
In South Africa, the history of police brutality and human rights abuses in the country can be traced back to its legacy of apartheid and although one would have hoped that police brutality would be wiped out at the dawn of democracy, sadly it survived. According to police officials, there were improvements in policing during the first five years of democracy. There was a clear focus on community policing, community relations, demilitarisation and human rights training. But then in 2000 everything changed: the training period of new recruits went from two years to only one year and corruption became part of the recruitment process (Egwu, 2021).