Defend SA from its cops, army before it’s too late

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Defend SA from its cops, army before it’s too late

ANALYSIS | While Bheki Cele has since urged them to show compassion, his off-the-cuff initial response was telling

Journalist
A policeman instructs a man to do push-ups during an operation in Eldorado Park, on the fourth day of a nationwide lockdown.
Push-ups A policeman instructs a man to do push-ups during an operation in Eldorado Park, on the fourth day of a nationwide lockdown.
Image: Alon Skuy

Just more than a week into SA’s Covid-19 shutdown, and there are already troubling signs that the state may be unwittingly creating the circumstances for social upheaval – driven, not by the lockdown itself, but by law enforcement’s often violent attempts to implement it.

Now a far-reaching court application by the Fair and Equitable Society (FES), a nongovernmental organisation aimed at reinforcing the principle that ordinary people continue to have constitutional rights during the shutdown, will force the state to take a legal position on alleged widespread human rights abuses by police and defence force members.

The group wants the court to order that members of the police and defence force “have violated the constitutional rights of South Africans, the South African Police Service Act and Government Gazette NO. 43096 in using violence, excessive force, torture and assault in enforcing the provisions of Government Gazette NO. 43096.”

It wants law enforcement to be interdicted from engaging in such conduct. It further wants the court to rule that “the State of Disaster as declared by the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs under Government Gazette NO. 43096 has not and does not suspend constitutional rights of all South Africans.”

SA’s government is arguably doing its best to prevent Covid-19 from collapsing the already fragile public health system and endangering the lives of millions of people living with HIV, uncontrolled diabetes and compromised immune systems.

But the hardline approach adopted by certain members of the police and defence force in enforcing shutdown regulations – and their leaderships’ apparent refusal to condemn the multiple acts of law enforcement violence and abuse flooding social media – should be troubling anyone with any awareness of SA’s increasingly desperate social and economic situation.

This is the most unequal country in the world, where more than half of citizens live in poverty.

In this context, law enforcement needs to be doing the best it can to mitigate the devastating social impact of the Covid-19 shutdown on the poorest of the poor.

Black Sash has already appealed to government to focus its disaster relief efforts on providing food parcels to poverty-stricken communities, who have no ability to access informal employment during the shutdown. Addressing hunger-driven desperation during the shutdown clearly needs to be one of the state’s most urgent priorities.

Instead, however, the images and videos that have dominated social media timelines and television screens have captured law enforcement officials engaging in behaviour that at best amounts to bullying and humiliation and at worst brutality.

It is crucial, now more than ever, that this apparent culture of abuse and impunity changes.

FES legal director Samantha Sarjoo describes some of these videos in an affidavit before the Pretoria High Court, detailing how they capture  officials forcing members of the public “to do frog jumps for long distances in full view of other people”; hitting people “with fists, sjamboks inside their yards”; shooting them with rubber bullets; kicking and  forcing people “to go inside their homes from their yards”; and “roll on the floor in full view of other people”.

Police watchdog Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is also investigating multiple cases of alleged police criminality during the shutdown.

When police minister Bheki Cele was asked about police using excessive force during the first day of the shutdown, he reportedly responded: “Wait until you see more force.”

Cele has subsequently urged police to show compassion to the public, but his off-the-cuff remark was telling. SA’s police face billions of rands in legal claims for damages, unwarranted shootings and torture, and Ipid records hundreds of deaths at the hands of police every year.

It is crucial, now than ever, that this apparent culture of abuse and impunity changes. In the context of the devastating global and local economic Covid-19 crisis, SA’s majority – its poor – are going to be driven into desperation.

Law enforcement can either calm this desperation, or it can perpetuate the abuse of people who have absolutely nothing left to lose. And reap the whirlwind.

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