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Cape Town - The shadow of the Marikana massacre hung over Human Rights Day celebrations on Thursday as the country commemorated another day of police brutality – more than 50 years before Marikana – when 69 people were gunned down in Sharpeville.
Speaking at a rally in Mbekweni, Paarl, President Jacob Zuma said there had been “regrettable, shocking and unacceptable incidents involving the SAPS since the last Human Rights Day commemoration”.
This came as opposition parties used the day to launch their campaigns for next year’s general election.
Zuma said that after Sharpeville, the liberation movement had resolved to build a South Africa “in which such incidents would never occur when freedom dawned”.
“Today we reaffirm our determination to build a police service that respects the rights of all,” Zuma told the packed hall.
This was the centenary year of the police service, and while the years up to 1994 had been characterised by “state-sanctioned cruelty and brutality by the police”, the democratic government had worked to turn the police service into one that was people centred and which served all the people of the country.
The “overwhelming majority” of police officers fought crime “within the confines and discipline of the constitution, and we applaud them for that”, Zuma added.
Events like Marikana should not lead people to write off the entire police service of 200 000 men and women as brutal.
The president urged citizens to help the police fight crime and “root out rotten apples from their ranks who engage in criminal action, including corruption”.
South Africa had a proud history of developing human rights policy, from the 1923 Bill of Rights, the African Claims of 1943, the Women’s Charter in 1954, the Freedom Charter in 1955 and the ANC’s 1988 Constitutional Principles for a Democratic South Africa.
“We are particularly proud of the fact that the landmark 1943 Bill of Rights was produced five years ahead of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. South Africa led the world in this regard,” Zuma said.
Speaking in Sharpeville, DA leader Helen Zille said the Bill of Rights and the constitution had been intended to ensure that the massacre there was never repeated.
It was tragic that the country now faced increasing incidents of police brutality.
“Many have compared the Marikana tragedy last August, where 34 protesters were shot dead by the police, to what happened here 53 years ago,” Zille said.
There had also been the “brutal assault” by police on Mido Macia in Daveyton, after which he died in a police cell, and the similar case of a court interpreter being grabbed by the neck by a policeman in a vehicle and dragged down the road in Lomanyaneng, North West.
But these cases represented “only a handful of the hundreds of citizens who are killed each year at the hands of the police”.
In 2011/2012, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate had received 4 923 cases against the SAPS. “Of these, 720 were deaths,” Zille added.
She repeated the DA’s call for a judicial commission of inquiry into police brutality.
Speaking before Zuma in Paarl, African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe said high levels of crime and violence, particularly against women and children, showed the state hadn’t done enough to fulfil the first-generation rights of the right to life, human dignity and freedom from all forms of violence.
Cope MP Smuts Ngonyama said the gulf growing between rich and poor demonstrated the challenge of uniting a country that was “racially separated and economically divided”.
The fundamental right to life, especially of women and children, who were brutalised, raped and maimed on a daily basis, meant all South Africans had a responsibility to help deal with these.
The police should “bear the same values that are enshrined in our constitution”.
Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, of the United Democratic Movement, said while significant strides had been made since the advent of democracy, human rights violations remained a major problem.
“Every day we wake up to news of incidents of police brutality and violence against women and children,” he said.