Police officers are confronted with a pervasive and malevolent cultural legacy of respect, discipline and authority. This legacy is derived from authoritarian practices found in colonialism and apartheid-style paramilitary policing.
It grooms toxic masculinity so that even in the face of severe trauma and violence there is a constant call to follow orders, display discipline and not show “weakness”. This has severe mental health risks such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. For women who are in relationships (familial or romantic) with these police officers there are additional risks. In South Africa women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than by a stranger.
In South Africa the violence in many familial or romantic disputes is amplified when firearms are at hand. This violence is more often than not directed towards women. Firearms are used to kill, rape and to threaten and intimidate women. When police officers, often traumatised but not counselled, and likely versed in toxic masculinity, are allowed to bring their firearms home, their family and romantic partners are potentially being put in harm’s way On June 27, this year the Constitutional Court delivered judgment on a case pertaining to domestic violence by a police officer. The court had to rule whether or not the Minister of Police should be held liable when a police officer, in this instance Johannes Mongo, shot an intimate partner with a police-issue firearm.
Mongo, while on a break during his shift, had supper with his girlfriend, Elsa Booysen’s family. After supper, and without warning, Mongo shot Booysen in the face, then turned the firearm on himself and committed suicide. Booysen sustained injuries to her face but recovered.
While the majority judgment dismissed the leave to appeal, in a minority judgment Justice Zondo provided analysis that refocused the role and responsibility of police officers in South Africa.
In the judgment, Justice Zondo argues that Mongo and the Minister of Police have constitutional and statutory obligations towards Booysen: “to protect her and prevent harm to her, to respect, promote, protect and fulfil her fundamental right in section 12(1)(c) of the Constitution to be free from all forms of violence”.
When police officers are issued with firearms, it is their obligation to protect. When Mongo shot Booysen, he violated her constitutional right to freedom from all forms of violence. And while Booysen’s case is unique insofar that the deceased showed no previous violent behaviour, it is reflective of a growing trend in South Africa of police officers committing murder-suicides.
An immediate solution to this problem is for the SAPS to prioritise the mental health of their employees and to take gun control more seriously.
Research undertaken by GunFreeSA has found that legal gun ownership significantly increases the risk of intimate femicide-suicide (the killing of a female by her intimate partner, followed by the suicide of the perpetrator within a week of the homicide), with two-thirds (66%) of intimate femicide-suicide perpetrators legally owning a gun.
Section 98 of the Firearms Control Act states that members of the SAPS and security company employees “must, at the end of each period of his or her duty, return the firearm in question to the place of storage designated for this purpose by the official institution”.
An exception to this would only be permissible if the firearm permit indicates otherwise. But this is not standardised practice, or practised uniformly. Police officers who return their firearms to storage before heading home are the exception. In 2012, Parliament also expressed concern at the rise in the number of SAPS members using their service firearms to commit murder and suicide.
Sadly, they have proposed few proactive measures to make sure that the violence perpetrated by police officers with their service weapons is mitigated.
There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the relationship the SAPS has with communities. What strategy is the SAPS set to employ to combat the violence of gendered crimes? Especially when this gendered violence has been, and is being perpetrated by SAPS members, too.
How can a policing service operate effectively if those whom it is mandated to protect do not feel safe.
What does this mean for women who are in intimate relationships with police officers? What does it mean for the legitimacy of the criminal justice system if women are at the receiving end of violence from police officers, who target individuals with State-issued service pistols?
These are urgent and important questions the SAPS and the State need to grapple with and answer. As communities we need to hold them to account.
We should do so to ensure greater justice for Elsa Booysen, for every woman who has been threatened with a firearm by an intimate partner and for the families of our policemen and women who live with the impact of secondary trauma and in homes where State-issued firearms are readily at hand.
* Khadija Bawa is a researcher at the Social Justice Coalition, based in Khayelitsha.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.