Simon Williamson

Mourning Human Rights Day

2013-03-22 13:15

I may live outside South Africa, but I always celebrate my country’s achievements, and significant milestones. This year, however, I found it hard to raise a glass to Human Rights Day, and instead spent it mourning for all of the victims whose rights were torn from them, recently and long ago.
The first few years of a free South African government took the rights of its citizens fairly seriously, largely because the previous government decided they were pantone-dependent. The current overseers of South African territories treat the Bill of Rights with less respect than that.
We’ll begin our journey with President Zuma’s announcement in Parliament on Wednesday that there is no need to probe police brutality. “I don't think the situation as I see it warrants a commission of inquiry,” he said. Why, you might ask? “The incidents that we all condemn are very few,” said the president, and also, “Operationally, the minister of police is ensuring that disciplinary processes and procedures are effective in dealing with both criminality and corruption within the service.”
Caught on camera

The president is quite correct in that the incidents that we all condemn are few. If you cast your mind back to some of the high-profile cases, such as the police killing Andries Tatane, or Marikana, or tying Mozambican Mido Macia to the back of a truck and dragging him - we did indeed condemn all of those.

What do they all have in common, however? They were caught on film. We were fortunate enough to see our national police force in the act of killing and maiming people with less regard for their right to life, and the implicit right not to be tied to a truck and have your skin scraped off your body by the ground as you are hauled along it.
Why do I say “we’re fortunate”? Because if those cameras weren’t there, we would likely not know they happened, nor been forced to confront it in such gory detail. And it is implausible to assume or hope that every time the police brutally assault or kill someone, that there is someone filming it. According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s (IPID) own report for 2011/2012, 720 complaints were made regarding deaths in police custody or because of police actions. What a pity there weren’t cameras near all of them.

Those “isolated” incidents to which the president referred? Seven-hundred and twenty complaints equals nearly two per day. While the number of complaints about deaths in police custody or because of police action is down from the 797 in 2010/2011 and 860 in 2009/2010, I’m sceptical this is an actual reduction in the problem. The 2011/2012 report also showed that only 18 people were convicted in relation to deaths in police custody or as a result of police action.
‘An entire community treated as one criminal’

Here’s an example of what happened shortly after the massacre at Marikana: my former editor at the Daily Maverick, Branko Brkic, wrote an alarming piece about the terror of living near Marikana in the aftermath of the executions that went on there last year. He ventured into Nkaneng, a settlement right near Wonderkop, a few weeks after the 34 miners were killed, and encountered police actions (my emphasis):
“The Nyala approached the [makeshift] barricade that was set up a mere 20m away from this reporter, then turned away, exposing its right flank to the shacks people fled into.
“And then they started firing rubber bullets.
“Bravely hidden in their armoured car, wearing their bullet-proof vests and sitting behind their portholes, they fired indiscriminately and with no provocation. As [I] feverishly photographed, they stood there, untouchable and inscrutable, all-powerful, if only for a moment. And then the Nyala made another U-turn and disappeared into the maze of little lanes.”
“The heavy instrument of state repression was being used against the underclass; there is no police spin or PR that could spin its way out of that simple fact. [I] saw it, all of it.
“We saw an entire community treated as one criminal, where being a child of 5, a girl of 13, a woman of 65, or a man that had nothing to do with the strike, was not enough to keep you safe from harassment and injury.”
How can citizens fight back?

Brkic’s article sadly didn’t generate the massive outrage that the previous killings had, but was an intense look into how the police are happy to intimidate where they don’t think they will be seen doing it. They did not know that there were reporters there that day. And if they were prepared to intimidate a community there, what is stopping them keeping other communities silent through intimidation elsewhere? While this remains a factor in how the police do their work, I am going to assume some communities feel it best not to complain to the IPID.
What can citizens do to fight back against the whims of the police? Protest? Let’s hope. Michael Clark and Jackie Dugard (senior fellow at Wits Law School and executive director and co-founder of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa) argued in Business Day earlier this month that the state’s call to control “violent protests” (made in the State of the Nation Address, nogal) was in fact a key to suppressing protest, and is a “worrying trend that should concern us all”.

They write, “Protests represent an increasingly visible failure on the part of the government to advance an inclusive democracy. The state’s response is to attempt to suppress the rising tide of dissatisfaction by repressive means if necessary. This is apparent in the conduct of the police at public gatherings.”
And what about the Farlam Commission, the investigation into the police force’s actions? Well, it outed the lying the police force is prepared to do to save its own arse. Greg Marinovich, also at Daily Maverick, picked apart police commissioner Riah Phiyega’s testimony and came to the conclusion, “There is a clear and orchestrated cover-up, from the national police commissioner, to the provincial police commissioner to the operational commander, of the fact that at least one member of the SAPS said that he witnessed a murder [at Marikana].”

The president says we don’t need an investigation into police brutality and the police commissioner is covering it up. Yet we have firsthand accounts of it being used to intimidate, and sometimes kill, South African and foreign citizens.
The video footage that showed us our police force pissing on the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution should alarm us. And then alarm us again, because these are the only occasions on which many of us have actually seen what the police do.
If you chose to celebrate Human Rights Day, I hope you left out the rights to life, freedom and security of the person, privacy, expression, assembly and association. Unless the police were watching, of course.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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