Protests: rethink needed
VIOLENT public protests are diverting police resources away from tackling crime – and the police can’t deal with unrest alone, MPs heard yesterday.
Both the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the SA Police Union (Sapu) called on Parliament’s police oversight committee during hearings on the SAPS annual report, to find alternative mechanisms for dealing with public protests .
According to the annual report, 1 194 public unrest incidents were recorded during the 2011/2012 financial year, compared with 971 the previous year.
Municipal IQ, an independent local government monitoring agency, recorded a 289 percent increase in the number of violent public protests between 2008 and 2009, while its figures for the first six months of this year indicated there had been more protests against local government in this period than in any other year since 2004.
Gareth Newham of the ISS’s crime and justice programme said the police were increasingly being seen by community members as the “face of the state” – and were regularly shooting at them with teargas and rubber bullets.
“Police become the proxy in terms of the communities taking out their frustrations on them – often leading to running battles with the cops which carry on for days. This leads to a complete breakdown between those communities and the police. The communities do not see the police as there to help them but as a state agency oppressing them when they are trying to express their grievances, and that undermines public trust in the police.”
Answering questions from MPs, Newham said there were “almost never any convictions” following public protests involving the police.
“What usually happens is that the police go there, arrest people, put them in the back of a van, and take them to the police station… There is an immediate break in the trail of evidence as the police official who made the arrest doesn’t know who he arrested and cannot then go to court and identify the person who threw the brick through a window. It usually gets handed over to detectives. I have yet to come across convictions for public violence unless police grab someone and they have video footage or similar evidence.”
Newham called for “other mechanisms” to deal with public protests.
“As a start, we need to ensure that the reasons local governments do not deliver are addressed and that there are clear moves towards only appointing people with skills at local government level and holding those that work there accountable for delivery and failure to deliver services. At present local government seems to provide politically connected people with jobs and that is one of the breakdowns.”
Sapu’s second vice president, Thabo Matsose, said the police had been “challenged to the extreme” because of the violent nature of the recent public protests.
“These have resulted in loss of lives, destruction of private and public property, intimidation and rendering certain areas ungovernable.
“As an organisation, we are concerned because public unrest takes place in the context of violence… and the police often find themselves in compromising positions. Police themselves have not escaped these unrests and many have been killed. Our view … is that the police cannot succeed in policing public unrest alone.”
Matsose called on the committee to find ways of reviving the role of Community Police Forums and Community Safety Forums.
“These have been less effective partly because not enough resources have been provided to these structures in order to succeed.”
Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, who attended the afternoon session to present the department’s annual report, told the committee she had visited the families of two police officers killed in the Western Cape in the past week.
“As I was carrying the four-month-old baby of one of the members and the nine-month-old baby of the other … and the tears that came from the family and the father-in-law who said, ‘I took a loan to move from Mthatha to come and arrange for the body of my daughter to come home,’ I said to myself, ‘All they were doing was to serve this nation’.”
Committee chairwoman Annelize van Wyk called for a moment’s silence in the committee to honour the officers who had been killed.
“The time has arrived for us, as South Africans, to take a strong standpoint on this. An attack on a police officer is an attack on the country…
“We cannot, as legislators, close our eyes to what has become an unacceptable situation. We must look at the laws that define sentences for the killing of police officers and, if we have to start a consultation with our counterparts in the justice committee then we will do so. If it comes to the point where there is a minimum sentence for the killing of police officers, then that must be done.”