These are just some of the people who have died at the hands of the South African Police Service (SAPS), before and during the government’s Covid-19 lockdown under the national state of disaster that began in March.
While their names made national headlines, what about the names of those responsible for their deaths? What is the role of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), the state agency responsible for delivering justice to families who have lost loved ones to police violence, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic?
According to a government gazette, the organisation’s mandate is to ensure independent oversight of the national and municipal police services.
“Provide for independent and impartial investigation of identified criminal offences allegedly committed by members of the South African Police Service and Municipal Police Services; to make disciplinary recommendations in respect of members of the South African Police Service and Municipal Police Services resulting from investigations conducted by the Directorate,” says the gazette, published in 2011.
However, a lack of funding or constrained budgets, skills capacity and political interference are just some of the reasons experts say the institution has failed South Africans since its inception in 1997.
Low conviction rates
Daneel Knoetze, the editor of Viewfinder, a journalism project that investigates abuses of power, says publicly available statistics show that the conviction rate for police officers investigated by Ipid are extremely low.
“The reasons for this are both internal and external to the police watchdog. Ipid is chronically underfunded and unable to handle its massive case load. Historically, the directorate has also raised concerns over the failure of the National Prosecuting Authority and the police disciplinary processes to ensure that Ipid recommendations result in convictions.
“But, as Viewfinder exposed last year, Ipid has also had a long history of closing cases prematurely to inflate performance statistics, while obstructing justice for victims. Ipid remains an important part of South Africa’s police oversight mechanism and should be better supported within government,” said Knoetze.
According to an investigation conducted by Viewfinder between April 2012 and March 2019, Ipid registered 42 000 criminal complaints against the police that included allegations of killings, rape, assault, torture and shootings. Reportedly, only 531 cases resulted in successful criminal prosecutions during the same period. The investigation also noted that during this period the organisation’s controversial director, Robert McBride, was suspended in what appeared to be a smear campaign because he was investigating high-level corruption cases within the police service.
This does not bode well for the organisation’s reputation, says Themba Masuku, the programme manager at not-for-profit trust African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum. “It definitely contributes to the perception that the organisation is underperforming in many key areas, especially in holding the police accountable against complaints related to police brutality, and that in my view is a travesty of justice.”
Masuku adds, “It’s a nightmare for families or victims when cases against police officers accused of torture, unnecessary use of force, police brutality and killing of civilians are not investigated properly and that is why Ipid’s independence is incredibly important … When [cases] are not properly investigated, it creates a perception that Ipid is not performing its functions, which is to hold the police accountable for their conduct. There may be a perception that Ipid shields the police …
“Ipid has raised the issue of under-funding to justify why it is under-performing … We are constantly told that we [Ipid] are underperforming because we lack the capacity and funding. Let’s take the Marikana massacre for example. Ipid was directed by the Farlam Commission of Inquiry to reconstruct what is referred to as Scene 2, because there are allegations that at least 17 miners were killed as they hid behind the rocks or tried to flee.
“That reconstruction of the scene was not done because of lack of funding, which means the investigations relating to Marikana are not yet complete. It’s now eight years on and the investigation of Marikana is not complete and there are prosecutions taking place … it’s extremely problematic and [a] travesty [that] the country and families can’t find closure on this very sad chapter in our democracy.”
On 16 August 2020, it had been eight years since the Marikana massacre in which 34 Lonmin miners were shot and killed during a standoff with the police. Miners at the platinum mine in North West province had embarked on an unprotected strike over wages on 10 August 2012. Families expressed again recently that they still haven’t found closure and are still waiting for justice to be served.
What New Frame experienced when attempting to locate two people reported to have been killed by the police and army during lockdown supports Viewfinder’s work.
Information on the deceased provided by Ipid and the police turned out to be incorrect, despite it being included in a report presented to Parliament in May. In both incidents, the case numbers Ipid supplied did not match the reported incidents, which meant the police could not access accurate information on the cases.
These examples reveal the failure of law enforcement agencies, as well as oversight bodies, to undertake their investigative responsibilities with meticulous attention to detail, said Kavisha Pillay from non-governmental organisation Corruption Watch.
“The failure to do so can have a devastating impact on victims, survivors, whistle-blowers and their quest for justice and accountability, as well as allow for the perpetrators of injustice to avoid facing consequences and act with a sense of impunity,” she said. “This matter is but one of perhaps many where incorrect information can lead to the implicated officials not facing any consequences for their criminal actions.”
Pillay, like most experts, says Ipid as an institution has a number of serious and concerning shortfalls. “Since its inception, Ipid has not successfully fulfilled its mandate for two reasons. Firstly, the Ipid Act is problematic and insufficient in a number of areas. The absence of strong legislation has provided a number of opportunities for political influence and manipulation of the leadership of the institution.
“Secondly, it has not been resourced effectively in order to deal with the magnitude of police violence and abuse that is being experienced in the country. Thus, Ipid will not be able to deliver on its mandate until it is independent and well capacitated.”
Afraid of the police
Speaking at a webinar recently, held by the University of KwaZulu-Natal and titled “Policing through Violence in South Africa’s Lockdown: Citizen Rights vs Police Responsibilities”, panellists and experts lambasted the role the police and army have played during the government’s lockdown.
Bronwyn Anderson, whose focus was on gender-based violence, said South Africans, especially law-abiding citizens, are generally afraid of the police.
“During level five of lockdown, we saw a high number of cases of police brutality and that is because the police are not trained for these disasters. What was neglected were the gender-based violence and domestic abuse cases during lockdown. This showed that the police are failing the most vulnerable in society,” said Anderson.
But Sadhana Manik, who focused on citizens’ rights, said the idea of policing through violence is not a new concept. “The police under lockdown are supposed to be peacemakers, but there is evidence of people being punished for not adhering to lockdown regulations instead of just being fined,” she said. The lockdown provided the police a platform to “go for soft targets, who are poor South Africans and immigrants”, Manik added.
“Immigrants are targeted because they are viewed as not being law-abiding citizens or criminals. Lockdown has shown that the police should have reflected on their strategy, which they have been implementing over the years,” she said.
Responding to the two experts, SAPS gender-based violence and victim empowerment director Mbali Mncadi said that not all police officers are guilty of unacceptable behaviour. “If anyone is being mistreated by the police, the matter should be reported to police management … particularly when members are doing things that are not in line with the ethical conduct of the police.”
Mncadi admitted that there are officers who are not upholding their oath of office. “We’ve had members who’ve been disciplined and prosecuted when they have committed crimes or not done their job, which is to protect the citizens.”
There is a perception that the police are “flexing their muscles”.
“Yes,” said Mncadi, “We have bad apples within the organisation. However, that should not make us reject everyone and not appreciate when members have done the right thing. It is a shame to judge the entire police force with the same brush.”
‘A crisis of leadership’
A fish rots from the head down. Is the leadership at Ipid problematic? The lack of transparency when it comes to appointing those who head the organisation does not instil confidence in the organisation.
“A crisis of leadership. This is evident both in the very [publicly] fractious relationship McBride has had with both ministers [former police minister Nathi Nhleko and Minister of Police Bheki Cele], as well as that since his departure, Ipid has had to operate under two acting executive directors,” said Kimera Chetty, a legal researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.
“The rapid change in leadership creates uncertainty within the organisation, as well as McBride having to spend the majority of this tenure engaged in litigation against his executive authority. There is no doubt that this negatively impacted the ability of the institution to operate efficiently and effectively.”
Chetty said the present appointment process does not create much room for public confidence in the independence of Ipid.
But there is hope, according to Gareth Newham, head of the justice and violence prevention division at the Institute for Security Studies.
“The SAPS can only improve the conduct of all its officials if its senior management echelon only consists of women and men of the highest integrity, experience and expertise. Ipid has an important job to contribute to this objective,” he said.
“It is only the SAPS leadership that can ensure that lower-ranking police officials are properly trained and held accountable to the expected standards in SAPS codes of conduct and ethics.”
It has been a few weeks since Cele announced the appointment of Jennifer Ntlatseng as Ipid’s new executive director. She has been tasked with executing her duties “without fear or favour”. But there is no doubt she has her work cut out for her in regaining the public’s confidence in Ipid’s ability to bring the police to account.