Group Executive Editor
Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma has condemned the heavy-handed approach of the police in dealing with the wave of service delivery protests plaguing the country, but also lashed protesters for resorting to violence to express their anger over tardy municipal governance.
In an exclusive wide-ranging interview with Independent Newspapers days before he delivers his last State of the Nation address of this term in office and three months prior to the next general election which is scheduled for May 7, Zuma was candid about police brutality.
“No I am not happy. I don’t think anyone can be with trigger-happy police. It’s not good at all.”
While the protests which have engulfed many parts of South Africa are not new and have been simmering for well over a decade, they are getting increasingly more frequent and deadly as police respond with lethal force.
“The police needs to be trained especially given that SA is prone to protest. In a place where protest is a daily occurrence police need to be ready.”
Zuma’s comments on police brutality might cause discomfort among the ruling ANC with many leading lights in the party calling for strong action against lawlessness in the face of local government protests.
Last week ANC leaders in Gauteng blamed protests on local dynamics in communities tied to business interests for some of the violence in places such as Pretoria. South Africa’s history of civil disobedience and mass action during the long years of apartheid has left communities well organised to take to the streets when they are discontented. It has also left a devastating legacy of violence as a way to resolve conflict.
But Zuma warned against isolating the police for criticism saying that communities who “carry pangas, and burn tyres” share in the blame of escalating violence. Zuma says what has not been addressed as a country is the “culture and the legacy of apartheid violence”.
While Zuma blamed the brutality of the police on the violent nature of protests, rights activists have complained that an untransformed police out of step with a constitutional state must carry the can.
Zuma conceded that the police, with its history of apartheid death squads and inadequate training in public order policing, were weaknesses in the system. But he was adamant that the behaviour of residents and others during such mass action and strikes did impact the way in which police behaved. Zuma said in some instances police pleaded with communities to remain peaceful and to conduct mass action without weapons. But their pleas are often ignored, he said.
“We need to focus within a context which is broader than blame, you can’t just blame the people… but equally we can’t just blame the police because they wear guns.”
Zuma says until the root of the culture of violence is addressed, the problems will persist.
The Marikana massacre, which saw police mow down 34 miners during a strike which was plagued by violence that resulted in over 40 dead, became a turning point in post democratic South Africa’s recent history. The Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the deaths of these miners in North West is still sitting and ploughing through testimony to establish what exactly happened and who was responsible. Zuma said while he doesn’t want to pre-empt the findings, Marikana does suggest that not only the police were at fault.
“The fact of the matter is that you had miners on strike carrying every other weapon, actually ready to kill. In fact they had killed 10 people before the police shot at people. Among those killed were two securities and two policemen,” Zuma said.
With elections looming, there are also divisions within the ruling tripartite alliance over who is responsible and what the drivers are of the conflict. ANC strongholds have become sites of malcontent as communities often kick out underperforming councillors who they believe do not make good on their promises. Zuma did not want to lay the blame on one single cause of the violence, saying many issues are driving the discontent at local government level.