Don’t sacrifice human rights to fight crime

Daveyton residents protest against police brutality. (Photo: Muntu Vilakazi for City Press)

Daveyton residents protest against police brutality. (Photo: Muntu Vilakazi for City Press)

(To see this op-ed  piece as it appeared in The Saturday Star on April 6, 2013, click here)


Police brutality has become a staple ingredient of the front page in South Africa.

Last week the nation was shocked by the acquittal of seven police officers accused of killing Free State resident Andries Tatane in April 2011. Tatane died after police shot him with rubber bullets and beat him with batons during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg.  Footage showing the assault was broadcast nationally, but Magistrate Hein van Niekerk of the Ficksburg Regional Court ruled that the State could not prove its case against the officers beyond reasonable doubt.

The acquittal doesn’t give the public much confidence that justice will be done in other recent cases of police brutality, like that of a court interpreter who was allegedly dragged by a moving police van whilst held in a neck-hold by the police officer inside. According to News24, the man had angered the police for offering advice to a young suspect he had seen them harass.

Another story, published in the Sowetan, was of a constable allegedly closing the window of a police van on a young man, driving off, and leaving his body dragging behind. The 20-year old was reported to have died on the scene.

One of the main reasons for police brutality, it has been argued, is that torture is not criminalised, nor is use of force defined or properly restricted. Most people are shocked to learn that torture is not a crime in South Africa, even though it is outlawed by the Constitution. Despite the fact that South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture in 1998, it has yet to domesticate the law. Why has it taken so long to pass such an obvious and necessary Act?

South Africans are still trying to deal with the shock and horror they felt when they saw the recent video footage of the other “police dragging” case: a young taxi driver was handcuffed and dragged behind a police van, because he had parked on the wrong side of the road. Mido Macia was later found dead in a police holding cell.

These shocking stories of police brutality come on top of the Marikina incident, where the footage of police firing on protesting miners was perceived by many as an awful flashback to South Africa’s apartheid past, and serve to scar our national psyche even more.

The Torture bill, in the works since 2003, has recently tabled in Parliament and the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development has heard submissions on it from experts and civil society representatives. Hopefully, the Act will be passed soon. But even if it is passed into law tomorrow, its implementation (including adequate training of officers and officials) will take years and that might be too late.

The credibility and legitimacy of the police – and by extension, our entire criminal justice system – is being drained, and drastic and immediate steps are needed to stop this leakage. Our trust in the men and women tasked with upholding law and order should be earned and continually reinforced.

A 2013 report published in the academic journal Regulation and Governance argues that in South Africa, police legitimacy is essential for effective crime control: because we will cooperate and comply more if believe the system is fair and we trust the police to be “just, decent and respectful”. This is especially so in South Africa, where a baseline level of legitimacy of law enforcement has not had enough time to develop. We don’t have a deep well of other, good, policing incidents to counter-act the negative because our democracy is still so new.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) analysis of the latest crime and arrest statistics paints a very interesting picture. Even though there were 1.6 million arrests in 2011/2012 (an increase of 11% from the year before) crime actually went up by 0.7%. The harsh, militarised approach to policing is clearly not paying off.

What is even more telling is that more than half of the arrests (52%) in 2011/2012 were for crimes less serious than shoplifting. That includes loitering, drinking in public and urinating on the street. If our resources are being directed towards fighting loitering, instead of violent crime, then police effectiveness is reduced.

If the police force is investing more than half of its capacity in fighting very minor forms of crime, this logically means that hard-core criminals are getting away with impunity and very minor offenders are encountering a police force that is not bound by anti-torture legislation.

And every time someone is arrested for a petty crime, their attitude towards law enforcement and the criminal justice system hardens and becomes more defiant. The ISS report attributes this to the trauma of being arrested, of being treated harshly by “tough on crime” police officers. Very few of such arrests make it to court, and if they do, it the arrested person feels victimised by the system and outside of its protection – and therefore its rules.  This effect is considerably worsened by exposure to abuse and torture by state officials.

The reported incidents of abuse are not isolated, nor are they a new phenomenon. They are part of a pattern that we at the Wits Justice Project have begun to discern with distressing clarity. We regularly receive reports of torture, brutality and apartheid-era tactics by both police and prison warders, embedded in what seems to be a growing culture of impunity.

Abuse of force and torture by officials should never be tolerated. Such incidents contribute to a weakening of the entire criminal justice system. They devalue the legitimacy of the police and the trust we each should be able to place in our law enforcement officials. In a country that has fought so hard for its Constitution and for equal human rights for all, such attitudes are tragic.

We must not sacrifice fairness, decency and respect in the fight against crime, because it will have the opposite effect. We need to stop thinking of torture and abuse of force in the abstract or as something that happens to other people, or to people who somehow “deserve” it. If a system allows for even one person to be abused or tortured, it cannot be relied on to protect the innocent – and that person could be you.

Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi is the project coordinator of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice and is based in the Department of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand.


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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