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Will It Ever End?: Police Brutality In South Africa
By Benjamin Fogel (via The Zambezian)
The police in South Africa have taken yet another life, this time that of a 27-year-old Mozambican taxi driver in Daveyton, a neighbourhood in East Johannesburg. Mido Marcia was killed for parking on the wrong side of the road and having the gall to challenge the officer attempting to arrest him. For this he was handcuffed to the back of a police truck and dragged several hundred meters down the road in front of a crowd amassed at a taxi rank. Later it seems like he was beaten to death by police officers in a cell in a two-hour assault.
In his death, but not through any deed of his own, he joins the ranks of those recently slain by the police beginning with Andries Tatane in Ficksburg a few years ago and that of Mambush - or the man with the Green Blanket as he has become known in popular representations.
Despite some truly despicable police spin, there was evidence that would not go away, in this case the initial incident was caught on film and handed to the Daily Sun a mass circulation tabloid that exposed the footage which has since gone ‘viral’.
Such footage of police brutality lives gives little room for the police chiefs and political class to slink away from comment or responsibility. Despite the Marikana massacre taking place in front of much of the world's and South Africa’s media, such room was more than available that time round.
The same politicians, public figures and commentators who were silent after the 34 murders, which occurred on the 16th of August at Marikana, now, surprise, surprise strongly condemn Macia’s murder. But what do they say about the other 932 lives taken by the police last year? For the record not a single police officer has been charged with anything following last year’s massacre.
“Members of the South African police service are required to operate within the confines of the law in executing their duties. The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable. No human being should be treated in that manner,” said President Zuma. National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega also expressed the deep concern about the incident. Her spokesperson Brigadier Phuti Setati, said: “The matter is viewed by the National Commissioner in a very serious light and it is strongly condemned.”
Last year 774 people were killed by the police a number roughly equivalent to the number killed by the apartheid police force during the height of the anti-apartheid uprising in the years of 1985 and 1986, when townships across the country were on fire and the apartheid state lost control of much of the country. A time when children were shot with buckshot for throwing stones at armoured cars and blowing off the head of a ‘communist’ was considered good sport.
The roots of South Africa’s culture of police violence are not that hard to unearth, they range from the paranoia of the middle class in regards to crime, a institutional culture of police violence towards black bodies and minds - a hangover from apartheid, the need to protect the structural violence of the grotesquely unequal status quo and a global process of the militarization of the police which really got into gear here in the build up in the World Cup. South Africa is a still a profoundly violent society.
In the same week as this incident took place, just to take a small sample, there have been at least two reports that police abducted and gang raped women, one of whom who died after her ordeal. To go back a little bit, to a story which didn’t warrant an intervention from president Zuma in the form of a token condemnation:
“On 18 February, the case against police constable Hlengiwe Mkhize was wrapped up in the Pietermaritzburg High Court. Mkhize was convicted of murder and attempted murder for shooting and killing 15-year-old Mlindeli Ngcobo. Ngcobo was riding in a car that was in an accident with the constable’s. Both parties agreed to report the incident at the police station, but Mkhize fired two shots into the car and killed the teenager, who was hit in the head. She claimed it was an attempted hijacking and that she had only intended to fire warning shots, but will be sentenced on 1 March.”
In some respects police violence in South Africa is not unique, similar militarization of the police in other countries of roughly the same income range and levels of inequality such as Brazil has the seen the rise of a largely unaccountable police force which routinely murders ‘criminals’. In other respects our own culture of police atrocities is specific and a reflection of the same warped imagination which gave birth to the grand social engineering experiments of apartheid.
But let's be clear here, police militarization is a deliberate policy of the ANC government, with tacit support from the self-appointed ‘official opposition’ the largely white centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA). Both parties like to talk Charles Bronson on crime, “shoot to kill”, “maximum force” etc… They both enjoy the benefits of having a willing police force to deploy the police against protesting communities or workers who move into politics outside of accepted channels.
“You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or the community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility. Your responsibility is to serve and protect,” the ex-minister of Safety and Security Susan Shabangu told police at an anti-crime meeting in Pretoria.
Another question which arises from this death, is why did the mass of people surrounding the man not intervene and why have there been no riots over this murder or for that matter why were there no riots after Marikana? In any country with a vague semblance of liberal democracy from the United States to France, when the police kill or brutalise people in such a public fashion it is common practice to take to the streets and engage in the tradition of the riot., burn a police station, take aim at the cops, make the anger visible.
When Oscar Grant was shot in the head by police in the San Francisco Bay Area on CCTV the city of Oakland exploded in rioting. When two youths were electrocuted to death after attempting to escape police in one of France’s many sprawling ghettos at the periphery of major cities, the country exploded in 6 weeks of rioting directed at the police. In South Africa where almost nobody trusts the police, what happens, a protest in Daveyton, but nothing else?
Go back a few years, under a different regime and we South Africans, well at least black and working class ones would have proceeded to the Daveyton police station and attempted to burn it down. We still riot here, take the recent examples of townwide uprisings, which occurred in De Doorns and Sasolburg, which saw virtually an entire community do battle with the police over political issues, but we don’t seem to have a culture of similar rebellions directed towards the police. As activist Zackie Achmat put it, “If this was apartheid police we’d riot.”
It’s not just police who are part of this problem, we have private police as well, in the form of the largest private security complex in the world. Hundreds of thousands of unaccountable people employed in the security sector, from full on paramilitary to an average guy with a walkie talkie patrolling a university campus. It’s common practice for ‘armed response’ to pick up a ‘suspect’ beat him to a pulp and drop him somewhere a few kilometers outside of town as a warning.
What’s ironic is that after experiencing the full force of the apartheid security establishment- the ANC came into power with a vision of demilitarizing the police force and building a community orientated new reformed police. But the post-94 crime wave which saw a countrywide increase in violent crime and the sweetheart deals with the villains of the old apartheid police force constructed during negotiations put this vision into the same coffin as the rainbow nation.
The wave of violent crime wasn’t really anything new. It had been happening in black areas for years, it just started affecting the plush white suburbs more and much of it was driven by ex-police and military men (largely white) who put their skills and contacts to use within security companies, by forming sophisticated syndicates dealing in hijacking and elaborate cash in transit heists, before mercenary activity in other regions became a little more profitable.
As the social contradictions of the country continue to produce intensified struggles from waves of militant wildcat strikes to so-called ‘service delivery strikes’ the police are being increasingly deployed in political contexts, from breaking up strikes to harassing leaders of antagonistic social movements. Populist demagoguery and calls to be tough in crime inevitably seem to morph into incidents of political repression and routine sadism delivered by those there to serve and protect.