When police officers - often traumatised but not counselled - are allowed to bring their firearms home, their family and romantic partners are potentially being put in harm’s way.
Policing in South Africa carries a particularly violent history. In the past it was used as an instrument of repression and a means to curtail rights and freedoms. Its history is one of a police force policing the public rather than one serving and protecting the public.

As a result, there is a historical and enduring distrust of the SAPS.

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 para-military 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 that 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.

The violence in many familial or romantic disputes is amplified when firearms are at hand. This violence is more often than not directed at women. Firearms are used to kill, rape, threaten and intimidate women.

When police officers, often traumatised but not counselled, 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, the Constitutional Court delivered judgment in a case pertaining to domestic violence by a police officer. The court had to rule whether or not the police minister should be held liable when an officer, in this instance Johannes Mongo, shot an intimate partner with a police-issued firearm.

Mongo, while on a break during his shift, had supper with his girlfriend Elsa Booysen’s family. After the meal, without warning, Mongo shot Booysen in the face, then turned the firearm on himself, committing suicide. Booysen sustained injuries to her face but recovered. While the majority judgment dismissed leave to appeal, in a minority judgement Justice Raymond 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 police minister 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. While Booysen’s case is unique, with the deceased having shown 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 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 be permissible only if the firearm permit indicated 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 about the rise of SAPS members using their service firearms to commit murder and suicide. Sadly they have proposed few proactive measures to ensure 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 the public. 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 police members too.

How can a policing service operate effectively if those who 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 the public, 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, Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.