Long Read | Criminal Cops: The Police Crisis in SA

In this seventh instalment in a series on police violence, New Frame digs into the underlying dynamics of an out-of-control police service and how its brutality is threatening SA’s democracy.

Minister of Police Bheki Cele may claim that there is “no police brutality” in South Africa, but the stark evidence is that the South African Police Service (SAPS) is implicated in daily killings and abuse.

As the government’s Covid-19 lockdown has revealed, law enforcement in South Africa – in which municipal departments support the SAPS at a city level – is habitually conducted with casual violence and cruel sadism. Bulelani Qolani being dragged naked from his shack by Cape Town police (followed by a shameful attempt at a cover-up by the authorities) is yet another example of how the police continue to trample on the dignity of ordinary people.

Related article:

During apartheid, the South African police had carte blanche to terrorise, detain and torture black people and the state’s political opponents. No less than an official history of the SAPS concludes that during that era “only one in 10 members of the force was engaged in crime detection and investigation”.

In the optimistic immediate post-1994 period, there were great hopes that police reform could create a professional and competent service that would respect democratic rights and freedoms. That it would make daily life safer and easier by reducing social violence and interpersonal crimes.

‘Getting away with murder’

In stark contrast, 2020 shows two decades of failed policy reform, compromised leadership and regular human rights violations. According to reports from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), which investigates criminal cases against the police, “SAPS members are literally getting away with murder, assault and torture”. And as revealed by Viewfinder, a journalism project that investigates abuses of power, Ipid has been complicit in obscuring the full extent of police criminality. 

Despite regular annual budget increases, the SAPS seems increasingly unsuccessful at crime investigation and prevention. For example, its detection rate for murder and robbery from 2012 to 2019 went down by 28% and 23.4% respectively. With gender-based violence now a national crisis, the police deploy resources instead to brutalise anti-violence protesters. 

The SAPS and city metro police continue to use harshly punitive, colonial methods of enforcing “public order”. As the United Nations noted about global state violence during Covid-19 lockdowns, police officers used “rubber bullets, tear gas, water bombs and whips to enforce social distancing, especially in poor neighbourhoods”. This report did not mention the growing number of unarmed civilians who have died at the hands of the police and the military during lockdowns.

Cele may claim that the police are fighting a “war on criminality”, but for many impoverished and working-class communities, this effectively translates into a war against them by the state.

The violent contradiction of contemporary South African policing is exemplified in Hangberg in the Western Cape, where 40 police officers, tear gas and casspir armoured vehicles were deployed to demolish a single “illegal structure”. As Shade Daizy said after seeing her brother’s house destroyed “Why is it there are no police available when a rape happens, or a murder happens? We call the police station and are told there are no vehicles, no officers available. But then they send this amount of force for one structure? If they just invested this energy in the community instead of the police, we wouldn’t have these problems. The police are just legal gangsters.”

Related article:

The SAPS is increasingly a force of terror, its officers becoming more dangerous and unaccountable as South Africa’s socioeconomic woes intensify. Ordinary people are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, between pervasive crime and social violence on one hand and police brutality on the other.

Beneath the rainbow nation veneer

In the 1990s and 2000s, South Africa was feted as an emerging democracy in which the SAPS was being trained and tamed through reform. But beneath the rainbow nation veneer, spatial apartheid and economic inequality continued to intensify through the government’s commitment to neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Away from the media spotlight, political struggles and revolts broke out around access to municipal services and housing, which were met increasingly with brute police violence. 

Under the economic decline and pervasive maladministration of the Jacob Zuma years, the police’s institutional violence intensified, culminating in the Marikana massacre of August 2012, in which SAPS units killed 34 striking workers. As South Africans try to survive a terrifying present reality of plague and economic collapse, they are increasingly under the boot of a dangerously out of control police system. 

Law and order

During the negotiated transition to representative democracy in the 1990s, there was a political consensus that the South African police needed drastic reform. In a 1990 speech, then president FW De Klerk told 500 high-ranking police officers, men who had presided over decades of extrajudicial executions and death squads, that the police were to be “taken out of the political arena”. De Klerk’s call for reform seems deeply cynical, however, as the police continued to be implicated in political repression and violence through the 1994 elections. 

After years of being ruthlessly hunted by these same police, the newly unbanned ANC and other organisations within the liberation movement were concerned with creating a democratically representative new police service, as well as the question of how to integrate civic forces, such as township self-defence units, into the post-apartheid state.

Related article:

The apartheid police, riddled with Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB) sympathisers and corrupt officers involved in organised crime and smuggling, were heavily involved in the political violence of the transition. Both the apartheid military and police, which included the infamously brutal “Homeland” security forces, were allowed free rein by the Nationalist government and it was feared that they may attempt to organise a coup after the 1994 elections. As a result, many apartheid-trained cops were allowed to keep their jobs and pass on their depraved methodology of torture and assault to new recruits. 

After 1994, the South African Police was renamed the South African Police Service to symbolise their new orientation of upholding public order. As Anne-Marie Singh says in a study of the security legislation that the new ANC-led government implemented, the police were imagined to be a service that would uphold individual rights but which would, more importantly, encourage foreign investment and create obedient citizens. 

This was ideologically reflective of the wider 1996 neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, or GEAR, which replaced the more welfare-focused Reconstruction and Development Programme. 

The police, on paper, were to secure the streets and encourage market-led reconstruction of South African society. They were intended to be punitive while also respecting individual and civil liberties. The wide mandate given to the police allows them to define a huge range of behaviour and activities, from organised political protest to perceived disrespect from individuals, as matters of public order. This gave the police extensive power to override individual and collective freedoms in the name of upholding the law, a power that is upheld through weapons and threats of physical harm to the populace.

War on crime

A very public rise in crime in the mid to late 1990s, particularly property crimes such as home invasions and vehicle hijackings, meant that policing became a huge issue of political legitimacy for the new government. 

This encouraged a belligerent, “kick in the door” style of policing, in which officers used military-style raids and “cowboy tactics” as visible shows of strength and force. Police officers justified their violence by claiming that the severity of crime in South Africa meant that respect for human rights was an unrealistic standard that prevented them from bringing order to the streets.

With the aggressive backing of the government, the SAPS presented its officers as warriors on the front line of a war against crime. The very real threat of violence and robbery in everyday life won them substantial public legitimacy. This was supported by the media and academic reporting and research, which was highly sympathetic towards the SAPS, generally framing officers as either underpaid heroes or overworked victims and presenting policing from the eyes of the state rather than the ruled. 

Related article:

The dread of crime inspired a fearful political culture in which it was seen as an existential threat – to be dealt with through brute force and constant vigilance – as opposed to pervasive violence rooted in South Africa’s fractured past and highly unequal present. Rather than social interventions to address the root causes of insecurity, citizens were promised police who would vanquish the “bad guys”.

The culture of law and order is exemplified in a 2018 EWN short documentary called “Be prepared to die – Joburg’s toughest cops”, presented as a day in the life of a Johannesburg Metro Police Department officer. The police are framed as warriors patrolling a lawless urban frontier – in reality underdeveloped townships and parts of the inner city – but much of the “action” consists of them aggressively and theatrically seizing minuscule amounts of narcotics from street-level drug dealers.

Police regard many shack settlements and inner-city areas as “ungovernable areas” where their authority must be aggressively asserted. However, this pathologises impoverished areas, framing the people as enemies rather than as citizens living in places where the government has failed to address issues of housing, basic services and spatial apartheid. This is tacitly accepted by media coverage, which often uncritically accepts that townships and shack settlements are intrinsically chaotic. Because police violence is less likely to occur to the middle and upper classes, police killings are under-reported or quickly forgotten.

From at least the early 2000s, struggles around services inspired both political activism and spontaneous revolts against inadequate and dysfunctional governance. Rather than directly addressing citizens’ grievances, many local politicians instead deployed the police to violently repress post-apartheid social movements. 

Related article:

A dismal cycle has emerged. After being ignored by government officials, residents in affected areas revolt, which leads the state to send in the cops, whose training and preemptive criminalisation of impoverished areas fuels more violence. The unresolved, underlying issues of poor governance, failed austerity economics and political corruption are obscured with the sound and fury of the police officer’s riot shield and rubber bullets. 

Aggressive post-apartheid policing was further influenced by international concepts such as the highly conservative and anti-poor “broken windows” ideas, which were first tested in New York. Cities such as Johannesburg used terms taken from counterinsurgency warfare in Algeria and Vietnam to conceptualise their policing strategy.

Criminal cops 

But while the police are adept at violently enforcing urban order and political repression, their ability to actually protect citizens is highly compromised. The SAPS has a notorious reputation for a “failure to respond” to reports of crimes such as violence against women and children. 

Beyond negligence and disinterest, many police officers are embedded in networks of crime and political corruption. As Caryn Dolley discusses in an expose of police complicity in gang wars in the Western Cape, on-the-take officers involve themselves with criminals, corrupt businesspeople and dodgy intelligence operatives. Infighting and friction in the police service also means that efforts to uncover wrongdoing are often derailed and subverted from within.

This has deadly consequences for ordinary people, such as in the case of Christian Prinsloo, an officer who sold more than 2 000 stolen police weapons to gangs. In other cases, criminal cops have loaned themselves out as hitmen in gangland wars. Former Ipid head Robert McBride told Parliament in 2018 that police complicity in dirty politics and racketeering meant that “the biggest threat to national security is corruption in the SAPS … SAPS functions at the highest level, with a few exceptions, as a matrix of corruption. People are occupied with stealing.”

Related article:

This institutional malaise comes from the top down. Since the tenure of Jackie Selebi (who was ironically once quoted as saying, “What’s the fuss about crime?”) ended in him being jailed for his corrupt relationships with organised crime figures, every subsequent police commissioner’s tenure has been clouded in scandal, political infighting and resignation. The internal culture of complicity in the police means that even “good cops” may turn a blind eye to the abuses of their colleagues.

The police were key in the political battles around Zuma. Law enforcement’s role in “state capture” included helping powerful politicians and businesspeople to strip the assets of state institutions. It allowed compromised officers free rein. Former crime intelligence head Richard Mduli was a key Zuma ally, despite facing charges of kidnapping and murder. While assisting in the intimidation of the president’s enemies, Mduli allowed officers like Nkosana “Killer” Ximba, who had been fired in disgrace, to return to the police. Ximba would later be accused of torturing detained strikers at Marikana. 

Shoot to kill

During the Zuma administration, police rhetoric became more overtly belligerent. In 2009, Cele urged officers to “shoot to kill” while then minister of police Nathi Mthetwa threatened, “We are tired of waving nice documents like the Constitution and the human rights charter in criminals’ faces”. The police claimed that they were under siege from heavily armed criminals such as cash-in-transit robbers, and that lethal force was a matter of survival for officers on the “front line”. 

The SAPS received expanded budgets ahead of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The football tournament was a major public relations platform for the police, who presented themselves as a hyper-competent, quasi-military force for public order. The riot control gear and armoured vehicles purchased for the World Cup would, in the coming years, be used in townships and shack settlements.

This militaristic climate fuelled further violence against unarmed citizens, including public executions captured in grainy smartphone videos. In 2011, South Africans were given a preview of the Marikana massacre when Free State activist Andries Tatane was shot and killed with rubber bullets. In 2013, taxi driver Mido Macia was tied behind a police van and dragged to death for the “crime” of illegal parking. 

Related article:

After “tactical operations” at Marikana left 34 striking mineworkers dead, the police relied on their timeworn claim that had been forced to use force by enraged protesters. However, the Farlam Commission of Inquiry unveiled a “blue wall of silence” from the police and ample evidence that the shootings had been committed in cold blood, which the SAPS subsequently worked to cover up. 

Like a festering wound, the culture of complicity and violence seen in Marikana still stalks our streets. During the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests and now the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, the police continue to use excessive violence that is retroactively legitimated as a response to rampant criminality. The government maintains the fiction that the police are sanctified victims or, at worst, “overenthusiastic”.

Refuse the police logic

South Africa faces a new decade of economic depression and social fracture. Rather than protecting the populace from crime and insecurity, the police murder people for minor infractions, habitually lie and subvert democracy and the law, and serve as the willing henchmen for the personal accumulation of political and economic elites.

South African police officers are a product of the socioeconomic order they violently work over, enabling the predatory accumulation of state and capital while habitually terrorising and dehumanising the impoverished. 

They are not warriors in some “war on crime”, they are public servants who are doing an appalling job. Police violence is fundamentally antithetical to democratic and egalitarian aspirations and has become a severe threat to South Africa’s democratic progress and its socioeconomic development. 

Related article:

The past two decades have shown decisively that handing more power and resources to the police has not made South Africa safer, and has failed to improve upon the very real problems of social violence and daily insecurity.

We need to reject the cloying sentimentalism that paints the cops as “good guys”, the line of order holding back the “bad guys”. Any sober assessment of the police would hold that, at the very least, they are a national disgrace that needs a root-and-branch overhaul and the dismissal of criminal and compromised officers. 

Most importantly, we mustn’t give into amnesia or hopeless acceptance of police violence. We must sustain the outrage around victims of police killings such as Petrus Miggels and Adane Emmanuel, lives lost to a police force that is sadistic, cruel and a blood-stained blot upon South African democracy. 

In the darkest days of apartheid, ordinary South Africans took to the streets to confront the war machine of the police and military. They were prepared to die in the hope of attaining a state and society that respected human life and dignity. We owe it to them to continue challenging illegitimate and despotic police authority and to demand that the government treat people as democratic citizens, rather than as targets and enemies. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.