Understanding police brutality in South Africa: challenges and solutions


In recent months, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has faced unprecedented local and international media attention over a number of highly publicised incidents in which people have died or been assaulted at the hands of the police. The cases of Marikana, Andries Tatane and Emidio Macia have become household names. Each incident sparked expressions of public concern about police conduct in South Africa. There appears to be little agreement as to whether these are isolated incidents, or if they symbolise a more systemic problem.

The seminar focused on the extent and nature of police brutality and the initiatives required to improve policing in South Africa. Perspectives were provided from the SAPS, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), which is responsible for investigating incidents of police brutality, and the ISS, which has been studying policing in South Africa since 1996.

Gauteng Police Commissioner Lt Gen Mzwandile Petros said that the effective transformation of the police and improving the quality of new recruits were some of the mechanisms used by government to address the challenge of police brutality. He pointed out that there are plenty of regulations that govern the behaviour of police officers. There is also a code of conduct that each police officer is expected to sign. However, Petros noted that too many police officials were not abiding by this code and that ‘if they were, we would not be sitting in seminars like this one today’. He added that ‘Every member of the SAPS should be able to arrest and report their colleagues to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate if they catch them acting against the policing standards of not ill-treating or torturing suspects’. Petros also stated that in the last two years, over 900 police officials had been arrested and charged with a range of crimes in Gauteng province alone. He emphasised that these officials were arrested by other police officers, which shows that many SAPS members are willing and able to remove criminal elements from the service. According to Petros, training alone will not be sufficient to deal with police abuses. New recruits should also feel that policing is a calling that enables them to serve their communities with dignity.

IPID spokesperson Moses Dlamini said the directorate’s role was to investigate the abuse of law by the police, including all deaths that occur as a result of police action or while in police custody. He explained that while there are no easy solutions to police brutality, there had been a decrease in cases of police brutality in all provinces, with the exception of the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga. According to Dlamini, these two provinces had experienced an increase of 9% and 18% respectively. Overall, he said there was a 16% decrease in cases, adding that 5 869 cases were received in 2010/11 compared to 4 923 cases that were received in 2011/12.

Dr Johan Burger of the ISS argued that police brutality could not simply be blamed on a few ‘bad apples’, which is an approach taken by police leadership to shift attention from their own shortcomings. Rather, the root of the problem lies in poor command and control. This was the finding of a two-year process in which a SAPS Policy Advisory Council had inspected three quarters of the country’s police stations.

Burger said government’s National Development Plan (NDP) could help to deal with police brutality: ‘If we are to do away with police brutality, we need to start with the implementation of the recommendations of the NDP, which I think are constructive and good’. The NDP recommends that the police code of conduct and code of professionalism be linked to promotion and discipline in the service, and that recruitment should attract competent, skilled professionals. The decision to demilitarise the police force, moving away from its history of brutality, was a key transformation goal after 1994. The NDP advocates for the further demilitarisation of the police in order to move towards a professional civilian service.

The seminar was attended by around 170 people and received substantial media coverage. Both SABC TV and eTV prime time news covered the event, as did Radio 702 and Jacaranda. Some of the print and online media coverage are:

The Times

Business Day

Independent Online

Eye Witness News 1

Eye Witness News 2

Mail and Guardian


City Press

Go South Online

Turn it Around

UNISA Staff News


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