Police and students around the country clash on a regular basis. Annetjie van Wynegaard asks, when does the call of duty become an excuse for brutality?
Picture a night out at a local pub in Grahamstown. Suddenly the Grahamstown police barge through the doors and refuse to let anyone leave. They push students onto the floor, kicking and hitting them. They adopt a harass first, ask questions later approach and start conducting cavity searches.
Alternatively, imagine being a Zimbabwean refugee, ridden with illness and seeking shelter in the Cathedral. Your only hope of survival comes from a few Christians who clothe and feed you and other refugees. Then, suddenly, policemen with dogs burst in and begin the abuse, chasing all the people from the church, injuring the hungry and the homeless.
Seven second year students from the Afrikaans department at Rhodes went to Stellenbosch to attend the Word Fest Afrikaans Literary Festival. What they encountered were not just festive debates on Anne Frank and the future of Afrikaans in Poland, but also a front seat to police brutality. Three local pubs were targeted: Bohemia, Mystic Boer and Springbok Pub. Police officers stormed in, threw people to the floor and proceeded to search for drugs while brutally assaulting students. Lennit Max, DA spokesperson of Community Safety and former head of police in the Western Cape said in Die Matie, Wednesday 19 March, that it was one of the most amateur operations he had ever seen in his life.
One of the students who went to Stellenbosch for the word festival, Vivienne Nell, said they were “shocked and astounded” by what happened. They only went out in Stellenbosch to discover the “Maties’ party life”. They were outside Mystic Boer when the raids took place. “It’s a disgrace and the police should be ashamed of themselves,” said Nell.International authors, Tommy Wierenga from Holland and Flemish poet Dirk van Bastelaere, were expecting a quiet drink in the supposedly safe student town, but instead were assaulted by police at Mystics. “The police show up with their automatic guns and shoot into the ceiling – three shots altogether – and say: ‘Lie down sir, lie down’”, Wierenga told the Dutch magazine Privé. According to Wierenga, a mere 150g of marijuana was found. The pubs were closed down, but soon reopened again with two new shooters on Bohemia’s menu aptly named Rubber Bullet and Police Brutality.
Another incident occurred Wednesday 30 January at around midnight when members of the SAPS raided the Central Methodist Church in central Johannesburg. According to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), 300 refugees were arrested. The church is run by Bishop Paul Verryn and is for refugees from Zimbabwe who have nowhere else to go. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an organisation that provides health-care support to people staying at the church. Of the people who live there, many have HIV and Tuberculosis (TB). According to a News24 report on 5 February, the immigrants were treated seriously injured during these raids. “Some had suspected fractured ribs and possible lung contusions. Others were under HIV or TB treatment and didn’t get the amount of food required to take their medications,” MSF said in a statement. According to another report on News24, February, the police used batons and dogs to clear out the church before they asked the immigrants for their permits, even when the refugees were not resisting arrest. Again it was a case of act first, ask questions later and only after assaulting the suspects.
According to a SABCnews.com article on 19 March, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) “wants a clamp down on police brutality”. After these incidents, SAHRC has decided that all perpetrators of police brutality “must be brought to book”. Denzel van Zyl, the Commission’s coordinator of Human Rights and Crime, says in the article that they do not want the police to be less tough on crime, but that “the police need to be clear on what kind of action is reasonable under certain circumstances so as not to infringe upon the rights of SA citizens and other inhabitants”.
Not only are these incidents a gross violation of human rights, but these and other examples of police brutality in South Africa are also costing the taxpayers money. Police spokesperson Superintendent Leon Engelbrecht said in an article in The Sunday Independent on 8 February 2003 that R120 million from the year 2000 to 2003 had been spent on damages inflicted by the SAPS. “The problem is that some of our guys get carried away by their jobs when fighting syndicates. They sometimes resort to the use of unnecessary, excessive force,” he told The Sunday Independent. Police brutality is still an issue. How much money will the taxpayers have to fork out now for the police’s mistakes?
Mali Govender, a spokesperson for the Grahamstown police department, says that the incidents of police brutality are “strongly condemned” by the department. She says that the behaviour of the police is unacceptable and that they are “not supposed to treat people in an inhumane manner”. She further encourages the community to come forward if police brutality should occur in Grahamstown. She also says that in such a case an internal investigation will take place and punitive measures will be taken against the culprits.