South Africa

Instances of police, military brutality evidence of state’s limitations – researcher

National trends in deaths from police action suggest one cannot see them as an organisation that has comprehensively, or systematically been militarised, researcher David Bruce said during a webinar on Friday.

“There does not seem to be a correlation between deaths and the phenomenon of militarisation.

“I am going to argue that one can’t see the police as an organisation which has comprehensively, or systematically been militarised,” he said at a webinar co-hosted by the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy and the Research Chair on Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa at Nelson Mandela University.

Bruce – who specialises in the fields of policing, crime and criminal justice – was delivering a presentation on the lockdown, police violence and democracy in South Africa.

He, however, said over the last 20 years, there have been elements of militarisation.

“I am going to motivate that there have been elements of militarisation of the police over the last 20 years.

“They have generally had a superficial impact on the police and I am going to argue that the problems of excessive force reflect other characteristics of policing in South Africa.

“This includes the partly challenging police environment, size and complexity of the police and problems of governance and leadership of the police and a failure to embed human rights-orientated professionalism within the police.”

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Bruce went on to describe the various manifestations of militarisation between 2000 and 2019.

The early 2000s saw crackdown policing where large groups of police officers would carry out cordon-and-search operations in the inner city.

This was followed by the period of 2008 to 2010 which was characterised by the “shoot to kill” rhetoric, according to the researcher.

“Earlier in the decade, there was public anxiety about crime,” Bruce said.

He notably cited the Marikana Massacre in August of 2012 which saw the death of approximately 34 strikers at the hands of the police.

“Militarisation  may therefore have been a contributing a factor to the tragedy at Marikana.

“On the other hand, date-on-death as a result of police action suggests that militarisation has not had a pervasive impact on the police,” Bruce said.

Data on police violence during the lockdown between 26 March and 5 May 2020 from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported 376 incidents related to lockdown enforcement.

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Bruce added while trends in deaths have been shaped disproportionally by those in KwaZulu-Natal, apart from this, “national trends do not indicate that [the] number of deaths increased consistently or dramatically in periods defined by ‘militaristic’, political and police leadership”.

Taking this all into consideration, Bruce said the instances of police and military brutality were evidence of the limitations of the government.

“Essentially, my argument is that rather than providing evidence of authoritarianism or militarisation, the instances of police and military brutality are evidence of the limitations of the government in being able to govern the police in South Africa in a coherent and purposeful manner.

“So, in many ways the problem of the police is reflected in these instances of violence,” he added.

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