By Renny Simone
MAIN PHOTO: Police Minister General Bheki Cele and other senior members of the police executive conducted an inspection of lockdown operations in Limpopo yesterday. SOURCE: Twitter @SAPoliceService
Police action is killing South Africans nearly as fast as COVID-19, if allegations reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) are to be believed.
Complaints received by the police watchdog implicate the South African Police Service (SAPS) in eight deaths since the start of the nationwide lockdown – only one fewer than the number who have died from the virus itself.
The release of information about the allegations comes after multiple reports of police brutality during the lockdown. At least three police officers are already facing murder charges for the deaths of South African citizens, according to News24.
IPID is investigating nearly 40 complaints that have been filed since the start of the lockdown on 27 March.
These include cases of nonfatal police brutality, some of which have been documented and widely shared on social media. One video, posted to YouTube, purports to show a man being beaten for violating the lockdown. Another, appearing to show policemen firing on a group of protesting healthcare workers with flash grenades and rubber bullets, has been retweeted hundreds of times.
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed concerns regarding police violence during a coronavirus update delivered on Monday. “We have made it clear that the task of our security personnel is to support, reassure and comfort our people … they must not cause harm to any of our people,” he said.
But some experts, including Andrew Faull of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, fear that police violence may escalate an already-dangerous situation.
“If on top of their socio-economic hardship citizens routinely experience or perceive abuse by state officials during the lockdown, it is possible that some may rebel,” Faull wrote for Daily Maverick. “[T]he risks posed by continued, illegitimate state violence … could be as great as those brought by the pandemic.”
Others are asking for patience. In an anonymous op-ed published in Daily Maverick, a police officer described the severe stress law enforcement is under during this crisis, urging citizens to cooperate. “[L]ockdown only works if there is compliance,” the officer wrote.
The effects of the lockdown on police-citizen relations might be clear only in retrospect. Daneel Knoetze, writing for GroundUp, noted that the present rate of complaint submissions to the IPID is in line with pre-lockdown trends, indicating that the problem predated coronavirus.
But even if the issue of police violence is old news, Knoetze hopes that its increased publicity will have positive effects – such as an increase in funding for the IPID.
“[P]oliticians used the uniqueness of the lockdown moment to call out abuses by the police,” he wrote. “These calls will ring hollow in time, if they do not lead … to policy interventions to hold the transgressors and police management accountable long after the lockdown has ended.”