The tragic and shocking death of Meleke Andries Tatane at the hands of Police in Meqheleng – a township bordering Ficksburg – brings to light the increasing incidence of brutality and abuse of power in the South African Police Service (SAPS). Captured on video and later broadcast on SABC, members of SAPS repeatedly and brutally beat Tatane, then opened fire on him at close range with rubber bullets, resulting in his death. Tatane had been protesting against the lack of access to clean water where he lived. His family claims that at the time of the attack he was attempting to assist a disabled man caught up in the protest. It has also been reported that a pregnant woman was shot in the neck with rubber bullets by SAPS on Thursday night, while fetching water.
Our Constitution allows public demonstrations to be held, and since 1994 this has been one of the most important mechanisms to help entrench our still young democracy. While it is understood that SAPS can use limited force to control situations when they become violent, the extent of the attack on Tatane was clearly unprovoked. There is no reasonable explanation for the manner in which the police dealt with this protestor. The SJC calls on the officers concerned to be immediately suspended, and for the immediate instigation of criminal charges.
Unfortunately, police brutality and abuse of power is not isolated. Similar video images emerged earlier this year, when SAPS officers viciously beat defenseless patrons at the Catz Pajamas Bistro in Melville. It is difficult to gauge the true effect of Police Chief General Bheki Cele’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy and the remilitarization of the police force, but the increase in these incidents seem to suggest that such policy should be reconsidered.
The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) is frequently informed of police brutality and a lack of consideration for the people SAPS is charged with protecting. On a single day in October last year two separate incidents occurred in Khayelitsha in which SAPS officers opened fire into crowded, public places while they were allegedly in pursuit of suspects. In both incidents, innocent bystanders were shot. The SJC referred these to the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) but six months later, the victims have not been informed about progress on the case and it does not appear that cases have been opened against the police officers involved. One elderly victim lives in fear as she has not been informed about whether the officers who shot her in the leg have been suspended or not.
The ICD have been tasked with investigating the Ficksburg incidents, but if the statistics are anything to go by the chances of successful prosecution are slim. In 2008/9, the ICD received 378 reports of common assault, 828 of assault with grievous bodily harm, and 372 of attempted murder. Of these, only 6 of each resulted in successful prosecution – percentages of 1.58, 0.72 and 1.61 respectively. While there are no doubt examples where the police were innocent of wrongdoing, these numbers seem heavily skewed. Despite this, we call for this incident to be thoroughly investigated and for the SAPS members involved to be brought to book. There does not seem to be much room for interpretation in the death of Tatane.
Incidents such as these have the unfortunate affect of reflecting very poorly on the very many police officers who put their lives on the line and conduct their duties within the confines of the law to protect people in South Africa. SAPS members who conduct themselves in the manner illustrated in Ficksburg need to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. We will not succeed in reducing the high levels of crime in South Africa if illegal activity within SAPS is not strongly condemned and punished.