The way in which human rights are being absorbed in the South African police force reveals the use of human rights as a form of state power violence. The discourse around human rights reveals something quite central about the concept itself; despite being positioned as counterforce to state violence, the use of human rights as a state practice is actually in itself a form of state violence. Johannesburg is home to both legal and illegal migrant traders, asylum seekers, refugees, exchange students, rural migrants and regional migrants. South Africa has operational legal systems and bureaucratic structures yet they fail to protect some of these migrants against crime and abuse perpetuated by criminals, society and the police. This goes to show that human rights are not recognized for what they purport to be, namely as means to universal justice but rather for the access they offer to state power in a personalized form- very often as brute force.
A criminal for instance can target an undocumented migrant and steal his possessions but the moment he reports it to the police claiming his rights and justice; he runs the high risk of being deported if he doesn’t have the right documentation. This makes it clear that there is a fundamental gap between the conditions under which human rights are able to bring about a sense of justice and security and the conditions under which human rights can actually pose a threat and turn violently against those who claim them. This lack of protection creates powerlessness and opens a door for exploitation by the police. I’ve witnessed people I know who are foreigners who had to deal with police brutality because they didn’t have their documentation with them. My class mate (Lisa) and her friend (whom are foreigners from Nigeria) were walking in Braamfontein to Pick n Pay. A police officer stopped them and asked for their documentation. Lisa told the police officer that she didn’t have her documentation with her, but it was at her place. Her friend had his passport with him. So the police officer checked his passport and started enquiring about a recent stamp which Lisa’s friend showed him. Seeing that the stamp and everything was in place, he looked for an excuse to charge him for. Moving on to Lisa again, he enquired about her documentation and started getting irritated and used abusive language, also threatening to arrest Lisa. Manipulating his way around, he gave Lisa two options, either to bribe him for not having her documentation with her at that time or he takes her to the Booysens police station. The point I’m trying to make here is that Irregular police practices place immense pressure on both documented and undocumented migrants’ everyday lives, pushing them to the edge of vulnerability. Police irregularities such as abuse, humiliation, human rights violations and the destruction of identity papers are well documented. Cases whereby police extort bribe money from undocumented immigrants are well documented. The concern of everyday policing is not primarily to punish criminal activity or deport illegal immigrants but to run a lucrative business.
How is it that in spite of the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of the Bill of Rights being applicable to all people within the South African borders, the South African police force can continue to violate the rights of immigrants? The private efforts of police further the impression of state institutions either as fragile or potentially failing. Corruption has become a normal institutionalized aspect of immigration policing. Irregular police practices are experienced as normal and systematic, shadowing the conditions under which a police officer would mobilize his or her own knowledge about human rights policing and try to turn it into practice within legal institutions. The Department of Home Affairs regularly fails to comply with the procedural guarantees required by law. According to a study conducted at the Lindela Detention Centre, it found a pattern of violations such as failure to comply with procedures in the Immigration Act, indefinite detentions in excess of the legally prescribed 120 days and traumatic detentions. According to the universal declaration of human rights that countries signed, each and every sovereign state is obligated to protect the rights of any social group that resides in that state. By the virtue of being human beings, everybody within a sovereign state boundary are meant to be protected by the state’s legal system without any form of discrimination. Instead of protecting the ‘vulnerable’ groups in societies, the state actors and the state are the ones who are violating the rights of the people that they are meant to protect.
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