Durban - A British documentary entitled SA’s Dirty Cops that aired in the UK on Monday night has intensified debate in South Africa on just how brutal and corrupt the police force has become.
While South Africans cannot access the full documentary, despite it being uploaded on to Channel 4’s website and YouTube, an accessible promotional clip was aired in the UK on Sunday.
It opened with a scene showing Marikana miners during their wage negotiations and the subsequent protest which led to the death of 34 of them.
The short video clip ends with the reporter comparing the SAPS to its apartheid predecessor.
In response, South African commentators have said that while the use of excessive force and brutality by the police might remind people of apartheid-era policing methods, the victims of post-apartheid police brutality included not only criminals, but unemployed youth and protesters.
“In the apartheid era, police brutality was directed at political activists, yet in the modern-day South Africa, it is often-times unarmed and defenceless civilians who are on the receiving end,” said Annah Moyo, advocacy officer at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.
Commentators have also expressed a hope that the documentary presented a balanced point of view.
Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said there had been an increase in police brutality since 2002, but in the last year – for the first time in eight years – a decrease.
British reporter Inigo Gilmore has been in South Africa poring over CCTV and cellphone footage showing police officers beating and torturing suspects.
He interviewed a 14-year-old boy who claimed he was tortured by police, as well as Rose Tatane, the widow of Ficksburg protester, Andries Tatane. The seven policemen arrested and charged for Tatane’s murder at a 2011 protest were recently acquitted.
Gilmore also spoke to national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega about how “police in South Africa appeared to act with impunity”, to which she replied that the whole issue was about perception, and that policing difficulties were not unique to South Africa.
Gilmore’s article on the documentary also features on the Channel 4 website. He reported that a scene from a Marikana video clip showing an injured miner attempting to get to his feet before collapsing face-down in the dust, where he is left to die, was one of “many disturbing moments” in his documentary.
He said part of the film further explored what had happened in Marikana and it also unearthed “a horrific picture of police violence in a grim throwback to the past and one which stands at odds with the vision of freedom in SA, including being freed from police brutality, as set out by the Struggle hero, Nelson Mandela”.
During his interview with Rose Tatane, Gilmore asked if she felt there was political interference in the case and she replied: “Yes. Maybe if you’re trying to raise your voice and start questioning things, you’d be killed by our police in our country.”
When speaking to Phiyega, Gilmore referred to several cases in which police had acted above the law – where they had killed or tortured people and were not punished.
He asked Phiyega how she could explain that to South Africans, and she replied by asking if he would tell the judge what to do.
Phiyega said it was important to say that “we, as SAPS, are very committed to the rights of the people of this country”.
Moyo said police visibility and presence had become necessary during civil protests to maintain peace and order.
She added that when a crowd became violent, the police had a duty to step in and arrest those who broke the law, but only by using minimal force, especially when the crowds were unarmed and vulnerable. Like Burger, Moyo hoped there was a balance to the documentary.
Gilmore also interviewed Garth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies.
Newham told the Daily News he had not watched the documentary but felt it was not about South Africa-bashing, but about highlighting the growing problem of police brutality and corruption.
He said there were just more than 8 800 police officers facing criminal charges.