As the Moerane Commission of Inquiry probes the 89 political killings in KwaZulu Natal since 2011, The Daily Vox explores the disturbing trend of the South African Police Services (SAPS) acting as politicians’ personal enforcers.
The commission, chaired by advocate Marumo Moerane, heard allegations last month that police are either complicit in the killings or are working to protect certain individuals. Analysts are also convinced that political interference is the reason arrests are not being made. The Durban shackdwellers association Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM) believes many of these killings occurred at the hands of SAPS themselves, acting on the orders of local politicians.
“We call it ‘political policing’, when the police act on the directions of politicians, instead of doing their jobs to protect the safety of ordinary people,” it said.
Normalised political interference
KZN is not unique in its experiences, according to Stuart Wilson, executive director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri). Wilson told the Daily Vox that political interference in the SAPS is so normal in South Africa that it could hardly even be called a trend.
“It’s not so much a scandal as just the way things work. The police are in many ways the biggest threats to safety, security and respect for human rights for local activists and poor people generally,” he said.
Wilson said that every case Seri has faced involving a major protest in a townships or informal settlements had two categories of people arrested: people who had been singled out as the leaders of the protest (whether or not they did anything unlawful), and people who just happened to be standing around at the time. He said politicians used intimidation tactics, unjustified arrests and prolonged time spent in jail awaiting court hearings to quell dissent.
“We compiled a comprehensive report which sets out how political leaders use the criminal justice system as a means of disciplining people who’ve participated in or led protests that they don’t like,” he said.
Seri’s report highlighted growing trends of SAPS criminalising local community protests, increased police brutality, the targeting of local activists, and the abuse of the criminal justice system to silence popular dissent.
Evidence of political interference at Marikana
Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, told the Daily Vox that a key finding of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry showed there was clear political interference in police decisions made at national level ahead of the 2012 Marikana massacre. The Marikana report states the police claimed they moved to the ‘tactical phase’ of the operation on August 16 because of an escalation of violence but, in fact, the decision had already been taken in a special executive meeting on 15 August – whose minutes have been lost. The takeaway from the report was that the police were purposefully misleading and unforthcoming with evidence surrounding who gave the order on August 16th that resulted in the death of 34 miners.
“So there’s a formal judicial enquiry that finds police making decisions on irrelevant political considerations. If you’ve got your national commission doing it, you’re certainly going to have provincial commissions doing it and you’re certainly going to have low level commanders feeling that they’ve got to please politicians,” Newham said.
He said that while there were regional differences in the degree of political interference in SAPS, protests embarrass politicians – who are sometimes appointed without much support from local communities.
In July, the NGO Equal Education (EE) described how their legally sanctioned picket and film screening outside the KZN education department offices in Pietermaritzburg, was met with repression from police.
In a statement posted on Facebook, EE said a police warrant officer acknowledged that its members were not violating any laws and yet, acting on the will of the education MEC, threatened to forcefully disperse the crowd if they did not leave themselves.
“It is deeply troubling to witness public officials readily willing to turn to disproportionate and unlawful force against peaceful protesters. This is anti-democratic and unconstitutional behaviour that must be condemned,” EE said at the time.
Newham said that there is evidence that politicians try to create barriers to make it more difficult for the public to express themselves. They do this by abusing aspects of the Regulation of Gatherings Act, which outlines what protestors and authorities must do when organising a protest.
According to Newham, the law is meant to protect the right to protest, not suppress it, but it’s not always used that way.
“There are allegations that crime intelligence sometimes uses section 4 meetings to identify who the convenors of protests are, and then use that information to intimidate and dissuade them,” he said.
Section 4 meetings are legally required by the Gatherings Act; they are meant only to be used to discuss logistics and safety concerns for upcoming protests, but many activists view them as spaces where they’re being targeted.
Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo, section head of operational services relations at SAPS, told the Daily Vox that SAPS would not comment on the matter of political interference until the completion of the Moerane Commission. He said that the SAPS had a code of conduct which required officers to remain apolitical and SAPS would only comment if it was legally found that the police had done otherwise.
With a rise in protests and civil disobedience and growing concerns of local and executive government corruption, the idea of the police being captured by political interests to stem popular dissent is greatly concerning. If the police pander towards political power, then the law is being selectively enforced on those who lack influence. This way the police can become a mechanism under which the political elite and wealthy can enforce control over the rest of the populace. In an already unequal society, an inequality of justice which privileges the already powerful can only result in people losing faith in the criminal justice system. In such circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising that some communities have decided to take justice into their own hands.