On 26 November a South African police officer shot and killed his wife and her brother in a Durban divorce court before turning the gun on himself. He died of his injuries a day later.
In 2017/18, 11 SAPS officers were killed as a result of domestic violence, seven of them by fellow SAPS officers. Similarly, three officers killed other officers during arguments. These incidents are a product of societal and organisational cultures shaped by inequality, violence and poor impulse control linked to inadequate upbringings and poor mental health.
Public response to the latest tragedy has focused on concerns for the well-being of police officials. This is an area of great concern and deserves attention. But it is as important to note that the officer’s suicide followed the murder of his wife.
The incident highlights the all-too-familiar but often unrecognised story about South African masculinity, violence and mental health played out in the context of policing. Police work exposes one to the underbelly of society. In any social order there are elements of deceit, illegality, violence and death. The police officer’s lot is to face these head on. In South Africa, where crime and violence are common, this means regular exposure to the darkest elements of human nature.
Even in relatively crime- and violence-free societies, police officers encounter death and serious injury when they respond to vehicle accidents, fires and other non-criminal emergencies. As a result, they are often cynical and suspicious.
Policing involves shift work, which can disrupt patterns of sleep. Sleep is perhaps the most important driver of overall health and well-being, including mental health. Shift work can therefore promote states of stress, anxiety and impulsivity, among other negative health outcomes.
Force and violence are other ever-present themes in police work. Police embody the state’s claim to be the custodians of force. They have the right to use force so that the rest of us don’t need to. But in South Africa, where crime is unusually violent, police are primed for the use of lethal force. This is clearest in the fact that they carry firearms.
But one need not be a police officer to use or be a victim of violence. Rather, most South African Police Service (SAPS) officers will experience and possibly perpetrate violence long before they enter the service. Many probably continue to experience and use violence outside of work while employed as SAPS officers. This is the nature of South African life.
A 20-year study that tracked 2 000 children born in Soweto in 1990 found that 99% experienced or witnessed violence and that 40% had multiple experiences of violence in their homes, schools and communities.
Other studies show that more than half of South African children report physical abuse by caregivers, teachers or relatives, 45% witness violence against a mother by her intimate partner, and one in three young people experiences sexual abuse. These experiences teach children that violence is a normal if not legitimate form of conflict resolution and expression of power.
Boys and men are taught that masculinity means being fertile, providing for one’s family, and commanding respect. Over 60% of South African children live in homes without a father. Many fathers – both absent and present – are unable to contribute to the financial maintenance of their children because they lack an income.
In such contexts, South African society threatens to emasculate them. One way they can reclaim their masculinity is through violence against those with less status, most commonly children and intimate partners, but also other men.
In 2017/18, 14% of murder victims were women and 5% were children. Fifty-seven percent of women killed in South Africa are murdered by their intimate partners. Legal firearms are used in 75% of cases where women are shot and killed. Growing up in homes where violence is common primes children for anxiety and depression in later life.
Which brings us back to suicide in the SAPS. Based on available data, SAPS officers are more likely to kill themselves than be killed on duty. In 2012/13, 115 officers killed themselves while 29 were killed on duty. The suicide rate may have declined since, with 53 suicides in 2014/15 and 34 murders on duty. Criminologist Grainne Perkins believes this decline may be a result of improved psycho-social support within the SAPS.
On paper the SAPS offers its members significant aid. Employee Health and Wellness (EHW) services include proactive training on anger management, substance abuse, domestic violence, and financial management. Almost 80% of employees received such training in 2017/18. Additionally, 33 950 officers sought EHW assistance last year and 1 770 trauma debriefings were requested and provided.
The SAPS also pays its officers fairly well, which should mitigate against poor mental health and domestic violence. But, ironically, the nature of South African society is such that apparent success can amplify stress. Many officers remain tied to networks of precarious, unemployed kin whom they must support.
As a result, what should be a good life becomes one of stress, obligation and, for many, financial hardship and emasculation. With few prospects of rapid career advancement, nor of comparatively secure work elsewhere, many may become disheartened with their lot.
Add to this the presence and use of force at work, access to firearms, irregular sleep and an early socialisation in violence – including against women and children – and it is not surprising that some SAPS officers end up killing one another and themselves.
It is not the SAPS that has set them up for this fate, but South Africa as a whole. Arguably, the SAPS has done relatively well to respond to this problem, as evidenced by the reduction in suicides in recent years. But as a country, South Africa still has a long way to go.
Andrew Faull, ISS Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme
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