The College of Humanities’ public webinar on Policing through Violence in South Africa’s lockdown: Citizen Rights Vs Police Responsibilities formed part of the College’s Transformation and Leadership Lecture Series.
The webinar featured Director Mbali Mncadi of South African Police Services (SAPS) Visible Policing, Professor Sadhana Manik (UKZN) and Dr Bronwynne Anderson (UKZN). It was chaired by Professor Nirmala Gopal (UKZN).
Mncadi discussed the role of SAPS during the lockdown and COVID-19 and misconceptions about its members’ behaviour/practices during and post COVID-19. There was a national public outcry about the militarisation of policing behaviour during the earlier months of the lockdown.
In response to this and the theory that there are ‘bad apples’ in SAPS, Mncadi touched on ethical conduct. ‘If someone is not complying, they’ll be reported and submitted to disciplinary hearings. When it is brought to our attention, we do take steps.’ She stressed the need for members of the public to report wrongdoing. ‘It is very difficult for us to investigate without reports on specific cases.’
In terms of gender-based violence (GBV), it was suggested that specialised training and the employment of gender specialists be part of SAPS’ culture. Mncadi assured the public that its members undergo basic training when they enter the service as well as regular “refresher” and “capacity building” courses. ‘It is policy for victims of intimate crimes to be attended to within a private space we call a victim-friendly room (whether or not it is designated as such). Some stations that were established some time ago cannot accommodate population growth and require bigger accommodation.’
Mncadi pointed out that, ‘a key aspect in the current process is for the victim to indicate the imminent harm that is feared in the violation of the protection order. For the offender to be arrested, the officer must be of the opinion that the victim is in danger. For example, if the offender called the victim an idiot and there is nothing else to support a dangerous, threatening situation, it leaves a lot to interpretation and may not take into account what may be a dire situation.’
She added that all complaints regarding SAPS should be filed with the Station Commander of the relevant police station, ‘Station Commanders must take responsibility and there must be consequences. The Criminal Procedure Act must be implemented across the country.’
Gopal who is a Professor in Criminology and Forensic Studies in the School of Applied Human Sciences observed that, ‘In a democracy, the citizenry chooses to be policed and policing strategies must adhere to democratic tenets. Unfortunately, many South Africans are unhappy with the manner in which SAPS delivers on its core mandate.’ She reminded participants that the former South African Police Force had to be completely transformed to shed the culture of a militarised police. ‘Unfortunately, SAPS continues to struggle to achieve a demilitarised service. It’s a long journey and if we collaborate we should achieve this goal even if it takes a few more decades.’
Manik noted that police, who are designated law enforcement officers, should be ‘peace officers’ during a state of disaster. ‘They are obliged to use the least possible force where necessary. Social media is replete with cases of civilians being assaulted by the police for non-compliance with lockdown measures. The lockdown has created further opportunities for police violence to manifest itself in communities. The pandemic created a space for the police to flex their muscles, targeting what researchers are pointing to as “soft targets”, namely, poor black South Africans and immigrants.’
Manik added that, ‘During the pandemic, xenophobia did not abate and immigrant owners of spaza shops bore the brunt of attempts at political purging coupled with communities plundering their shops, being threatened by mafia-style syndicates and experiencing police brutality and corruption.’
Manik believes that COVID-19 presents a watershed moment for the police to engage in introspection: ‘This must be perceived as an opportunity to be self-critical to assess the weaknesses in law enforcement before the pandemic and during COVID-19 and to use this to transform policing in South Africa. In South Africa, as in the US, there is no faith in the police.’
She suggested that collaborative efforts be launched to strengthen law enforcement in South Africa and highlighted the need to move away from policing through violence, and harness university researchers to undertake studies and work with non-governmental organisations and schools to promote the good efforts of the police.
Anderson focused on GBV, policing during, and post COVID-19. ‘The pandemic has exacerbated the situation of female victims of GBV. While the SANDF and police are actively monitoring people in terms of wearing masks, curfews and social distancing, what measures are in place to ensure the protection of victims of GBV? Even before COVID -19 South Africa experienced extremely high rates of GBV including the murder of women and children.’
She suggested that SAPS should remain sensitive to and increase reporting and that female police should be assigned GBV cases. ‘Victims need to feel that they are being taken seriously and this means that perpetrators are “brought to book”, charged and incarcerated. Victims should be able to report cases in private and not in charge offices amidst the gaze of other people.’
Anderson noted that many women that are subjected to intimate partner violence have to return to their homes with no protection, often with dire consequences. ‘With more effective policing, much more can be done to reduce the scourge of GBV.’