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The Legacy of Shoot to Kill

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 27.02.2012

What do ex Police commissioner, Bheki Cele, Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu and Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa have in common… Sounds like the intro to a joke, but it’s not. They’ve all publicly shared some hardened, militant sentiments when it comes to the policing of this country. Since 2006, we have seen state security gradually turn away from the vision of a community police service to a brutal, militarised police force. One where the cops are the ominous, untrusted other. Add to this the failings of our judicial system, the dismantling of specialised units, cadre deployment, increased police aggression and vigilantism; and you have the makings of a corrupt military state. When hearing statements like “kill or be killed”, “shoot to kill” or “aim for the head”, one would be justified in assuming that our police were in some kind of war. Our own brand of state terrorism, the war on crime.

13 April 2011, Andries Tatane was killed by members of SAPS. The community leader and school teacher was participating in a protest against poor service delivery in the area of Ficksburg. In a video that quickly went viral, Tatane is seen being brutally assaulted by 6 police officers. They beat him with their batons and kicked him to the ground, before shooting him twice.

Around the same time, 45 year old Jeanette Odendaal was shot in the chest by a police sergeant in the parking lot of the Kempton Park police station. The cop alleges that he heard a crash, and thought she was a hijacker but an eyewitness claims that the gun shot definitely came before the car crash. She was on a call with 10111 when the incident occurred. Three year old Atlegang Apane was seated in the backseat of a car parked outside his Midrand home when a cop shot him in the chest through a car window. His body was thrown on the ground and his mother prevented from seeing the body while the guilty police officer casually sucked on a lollipop.

A few weeks ago, a 16 year old Soweto boy was shot three times by a student policeman outside his grandmother’s home. The officer was responding to a claim that the boy was a gang member and had an unlicensed gun. The gun was not found. The boy was shot three times, in the stomach, in the head and in the back, whilst lying on the ground. And less than a week later, Rean Ramadin was shot whilst handcuffed in police custody. It is alleged he attempted to flee the police station (in handcuffs) after being detained on a charge of drug possession (weed) in an East Rand nightclub. Police claim he was injured when the cops fired warning shots.

The police chiefs insist that these are isolated incidents. A few bad apples. A bunch of kids who got out of line… and that it be dealt with internally. This means of course, that they do not recognise police brutality as a systemic and structural problem. While the high number of police deaths, and deaths caused by the police clearly points to some kind of problem in the manner in which the police are trained and managed, the police authorities refuse to acknowledge the problem. In another example of deflection and spin-doctoring, renegade cowboy and ex-police chief, Bheki Cele, was reported as saying that we as a society, create the police we deserve. “Police officials are only a reflection of the [violent] society from which they [the police] come.” I imagine him shouting: “Are you not entertained?” And for a while, we were. We thought his hardened approach was a welcome contrast to his predecessor Jackie Selebi’s “buddy buddy” stance. In keeping with the theme of the Zuma administration; he charmed, sang and vox-popped himself to cult status. This before it was revealed that they were both snuffling from the same trough. Before we realised that we were the casualties in his war. In painting the police system as a mirror reflection of South Africa, he skilfully shirked all responsibility for the manner in which the police behave. We can assume then that the real police skills and acclimatisation happen not in their training programmes, but on our streets. What stops us then, from arming and protecting ourselves, both from criminals and the cops? With the police steadily positioning themselves in these unsecured, unbordered trenches, the safety of ordinary civilians is put at risk.

The cops in South Africa are three times more likely to be murdered than the average South African. And they are feeling threatened. But instead of protecting us; they have been mandated to protect themselves first. This ensures that the primary goal of the SAPS is to assert their authority over anyone who crosses their path, by any means necessary.

Currently, there are no specialised departments in the SAPS. Selebi shut them down, and dispersed the special skills cops to various stations, hoping that their knowledge would diffuse through the ranks. What actually happened was that the intelligence was watered down. The paper-pushing cop, is the same guy who deals with rape, murder, petty theft and riots. And all the while, the number of people dying at the hands of the SAPS is steadily increasing.

In 2010 alone, over 500 people were shot dead by the police, while another 566 died in police custody. It’s obvious the statements coming from the upper echelons of government have sparked some kind of bloodlust in our cops. A fragile paranoia. A shakey, ignorant arrogance, used by municipalities and governments to further their own pursuits, settle scores and silence any dissidents. The police have ceased to serve us. We are on our own.

*Opening image sourced at Wiki Commons.
** Illustration @ Zapiro.

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