Policing South Africa's cops

A shocking video of white police brutality against blacks sparks anger and demands for change.

The airing of a video showing six white police officers using three black men as live bait to train police dogs has caused race relations and confidence in the police here to plummet. The footage - a virtual flashback to this country's savage days of apartheid - shows the officers laughing and shouting encouragement as their dogs tear at their victims' clothes and flesh.

"Take him. Yes, take him!" the officers yell as the black men plead for mercy.

The outrage sparked by the graphic images parallels the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles case where a jury acquitted four white policemen caught on tape beating a black man named Rodney King. But where the rage in the LA example was shock at the notion of such overt racism, in South Africa, people are viscerally aware of just how brutal that hate can be. The shock here was that in post-apartheid South Africa, this could still be happening. Many people are praying that the moving image will be the catalyst that finally establishes an equitable rule of law.

The tape "highlights that the deeply embedded psychopathic boys' club mentality, characteristic of the old force, is still prevalent," reports the South African Human Rights Commission.

A front-page editorial in The Star newspaper calling on the government to "Be ruthless in cleansing police" echoes the opinion of many observers - that the law-enforcement culture here must be radically transformed.

One positive result has already come. The Safety and Security Ministry announced Saturday drastic restrictions on the use of dogs by police, including banning their use for crowd control.

The damning footage was filmed by the officers for their own entertainment in 1998, but televised by an investigative news program just last week. They called the illegal immigrants from neighboring Mozambique "kaffirs" - the South African equivalent of "niggers" throughout the 15 minutes of slapping, kicking, punching, and humiliation.

The video was so disturbing that the network offered a phone number for viewers to call if they needed counseling after watching the program. The station received more than 15,000 calls.

South African police officials, eager to protect what little public confidence they've won since the fall of apartheid, have been quick to defend themselves. "This small group of police officers are not representative of the police force," says Andre Martin, a spokesman for the department. "We've been working really hard [to investigate this], and we will continue to root out these elements."

They maintain that the force, which for decades terrorized the black community to enforce white rule, has been transformed into a democratic institution that protects and treats all South Africans equally.

However, experts say the evidence, this video being only the most extreme and recent example, indicates otherwise. They argue that the racism and brutality encouraged under apartheid continue undeterred in the police service of the new democratic South Africa.

The government has been loath to embark on an aggressive weeding out of the police department at a time when the country desperately needs effective policing to halt an escalating crime rate, says David Bruce, a senior researcher for the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.

"There is a sense that in order to tackle the crime problem, it is important that we motivate the police and not tie their hands," says Mr. Bruce. "This means that there isn't real commitment to promoting standards of integrity, professionalism, and respect for human rights [in the police force]."

According to the South African government, about 700 people die each year in police custody or as a result of police actions. More than 16,400 police officers - about 1 in 8 - are currently being investigated for wrongdoing. Another 2,000 - that's almost 1 in 50 - have been suspended for criminal activity since 1994 .

Police officers are three times more likely to commit a crime than an ordinary citizen, according to a 1998 study by the Human Rights Committee (a separate body from the aforementioned Human Rights Commission).

The Independent Complaints Directorate, established in 1997 to investigate complaints against the police, is swamped with work. Its 45 investigators received 4,380 complaints last year and are currently investigating another four reports of police brutality involving police dogs, along with torture allegations.

The origins of the problem can be traced to the birth of the nation's modern police force - the South African Police Service - in 1995. The 11 segregated police departments that existed under apartheid were combined. At that time, about half of the force was white, though whites make up just over 10 percent of this nation's population. Under apartheid, these whites were often on the front lines of the government's battle against black civil rights activists. Torture, assassinations, and illegal detentions were commonplace. The police department implemented a human rights curriculum only last year, but many officers still haven't received that training, says police Senior Superintendent Johan Smal.

Some extreme political groups have called the video proof blacks and whites cannot live together peacefully.

"It is time for people who are on the receiving end to start defending themselves against those who perpetrate such brutality," announced Mosibudi Mangena, president of AZAPO (the Black Consciousness Movement). Demonstrators have appeared outside the courtroom where the six white officers appeared last week on charges of attempted murder (they were arrested when police officials saw the video). Nonetheless, there has been no rioting.

When asked about the footage, Caroline Zulu, a black maid impeccably dressed in a burgundy skirt, sweater-vest, and head wrap, jumps up from her seat at a bus stop.

"I'm telling you, many whites are horrible. Horrible." She pauses for effect. "But many also help us.

"I used to think that one day we would all be united." But, slowly shaking her head, she adds, "I'm a Christian, so I still have hope."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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