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Our police can do better, why aren’t they?

A police truck sprays a water jet over ta protester who holds a sign high

Police disperse demonstrators during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions in the hospitality and tourism industry outside Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp)

Moepeng Valencia Talane

Senior Journalist & Editor, Corruption Watch (South Africa)

Nathaniel Julies. This is a name many South Africans will remember for a long time. It belonged to a 16-year-old boy living with Downs Syndrome who met his untimely death on 27 August 2020, allegedly at the hands of police officers, for not staying home during the lockdown.

A resident of Eldorado Park near Johannesburg, Julies has been described as a friendly, jolly teenager who would never hurt anyone. He was shot a few metres from his home, and rushed to the hospital, where he died later. A police vehicle that had been patrolling the area pulled up and one of the occupants confronted Julies, who was standing alone near an abandoned truck on the side of the street, eating biscuits. Initial statements from the police claim an altercation started when they demanded to know why he was standing there and not at home. One community member would later tell a TV news reporter that soon after gunshots went off, she saw one officer reach under the truck to retrieve what looked like a body, and put it in the van parked nearby, before driving off.

Two police officers have since been charged with murder, among other crimes, while a third is charged with defeating the ends of justice by tampering with evidence linked to the case. The latter was granted bail in December last year, while the others have remained behind bars since their arrest soon after the incident.

“He was just a boy,” said his mother, Bridget Harris, during a television interview soon after the killing. Her son would never rebel against members of the police as the officers involved had alleged.

A police officer wears a blue mask with the South African Police Service (SAPS) logo and a blue caps, and looks to the right

A South African Police Service (SAPS) officer. (Image: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp)

The case enraged many across the country who asked what threat a teenager with Downs syndrome could pose to armed police officials. But the family will have to wait until the end of January to hear the details of what happened that night.

For many South Africans, the national lockdown that was imposed by government due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020 has exposed hard truths about our police service. Corruption Watch’s latest Analysis of Corruption Trends (ACT) report put this into perspective, providing “a snapshot of the graft that has manifested in every sphere of government‚ with the complicity of the private sector‚ and encompassing multiple sectors in our society,” according to researcher Melusi Ncala.

“During the lockdown‚ officers seemed to act with impunity in both their behaviour and extraction of favours — patterns that also featured in 29% of allegations relating to abuse of power.”

“Whistle-blowers express their despondency and consternation with the police service in an assortment of allegations‚ which principally highlight brutality‚ inconsideration and inhumanity towards the public‚ and a lack of regard for law and order that officials and officers display‚” said the report.

While a few decry the unnecessary arrest of harmless beach goers and surfers violating regulations prohibiting them from accessing public beaches on social media, others have been dealt a heavy hand by those who should be protecting them.

Police officers have been repeatedly called out for soliciting and accepting bribes, treating complaints with carelessness and apathy, and abusing their positions of authority. The increase in police duties during lockdown, coupled with little training and direction, has resulted in an increase in the allegations of wrongdoing levelled against them.

There is one officer for every 407 people in South Africa, a lot higher than the international standard, while the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) itself is dogged by an untenable structure where it reports to the minister of police. Add to that rising COVID-19 infections among officers – over 21,000 at the start of 2021 - and the consequential closure of police stations in a number of highly populated regions, and you are sitting with a challenge: an overwhelmed police force whose members may at times abuse their powers.

In June, we wrote about Given Ravele, a young man who was beaten by a group of officials including members of the police and the army who thought that he was filming their stop-and-search operation in Soweto. He was advised by Corruption Watch to lodge a complaint with the Ipid, which has been inundated with such cases since the lockdown began in March 2020. The case is still under investigation.

By November 2020, the Ipid had recorded over 13,000 cases against police, with just over 5,600 of these being new cases. The directorate told Parliament that it had launched a hotline for members of the public to report misconduct by police officers.

As hundreds of citizens are arrested weekly for violating regulations such as the alcohol ban imposed most recently in late December, many call for more action from Police Minister Bheki Cele to hold his own accountable and restore the respect and honour associated with a position in the police service. More so, people say, because of the South African police’s history of being tainted by apartheid injustices.

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