14 February 2013

South Africa: Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Policing Public Violence in South Africa


Shortly after the powerful National Executive Council (NEC) of the African National Congress (ANC) ended its first meeting of 2013, Secretary General Gwede Mantashe held a media conference to report back on the key decisions taken.

According to a report in the City Press on 4 February 2013, he warned citizens that, 'by participating in violent protests you are actively destroying your right to protest because you are inviting the police to be there, while it is not their place'. He then said that the NEC had 'directed the state to find ways and implementable means as a matter of urgency to deal with the twin phenomenon of violent strikes and violent community protests'. Speaking after him, the head of the ANC elections committee Ngoako Ramathlodi said that the government would use an 'iron fist' to deal with the 'seas of anarchy' emerging in South Africa in the form of violent strikes and service delivery protests.

This highlights the dilemma the police often face. Violent public protests are increasing and neither politician appears to consider why these protests are turning violent, or how best to deal with the root causes of the problem. Nevertheless, it is clear that the police are perceived as the main solution to the problem.

It has long been recognised that crime and disorder are generated largely through a complex interplay between social, economic and psychological factors. Only once a crime or social disorder problem is threatening established interests are police called in to manage or suppress the problem. This is rarely if ever an adequate or sustainable solution. Nevertheless, worldwide, preventing crime and maintaining public order are always the primary responsibilities of the police. In South Africa, this function is enshrined in the constitution. The key question is whether it is realistic to expect police officials to positively influence social conduct when they have no control over the root causes of that conduct.

Tim Newburn and Robert Reiner in The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (2007) describe the belief that police are the solution to social ills as 'police fetishism', which is defined as 'the ideological assumption that the police are a functional prerequisite of social order, the thin blue line defending against chaos'. Indeed, this idea has a long history. In 1829, Sir Robert Peel established the London Metropolitan Police and introduced the idea that preventing crime and disorder was the 'basic mission' of modern policing. Over the next century and a half, it became increasingly clear to those who both practised and studied policing that there were fundamental problems with the accepted basic mission of the police.

Towards the end of the 20th century, analysts were becoming convinced that the police had been given an 'impossible mandate'.

In 1997 Tim Newburn and Rod Morgan wrote in The future of policing that the police could not conceivably be held primarily responsible for preventing crime. If crime or disorder occurs as the result of a breakdown or deterioration in public services such as safe public transport, decent housing, quality education, accessible recreational facilities, functioning health services, employment opportunities and so forth, then there is little the police can do to prevent it from happening.

Academics such as David Bayley and Charles Hale had already argued that because crime levels are determined by social conditions beyond the control of the police, it is simply unrealistic to expected that the police on their own could bring crime rates down. Nevertheless, the prevailing assumption is that the police must be primarily or solely responsible for reducing crime and keeping order. More recently, analysts have been seeking to understand why this flawed assumption and impossible mandate remains the dominant ideology guiding policing policy.

One of the reasons that has emerged is that the police themselves have bought into and actively perpetuate this ideology. In 2005, Peter Manning wrote that the police, 'have staked out a mandate that claims to include the efficient, apolitical, and professional enforcement of the law ... [but they] have staked out a vast and unmanageable social domain'.

According to Manning, the police know that the public's expectations of them are unrealistic, but instead of mediating these expectations, they use notions of crime prevention and creating order as 'distorted criteria for promotion, success and security'. They therefore set targets for reducing crime statistics and reward those who achieve these targets. The police benefit from this situation as they get social power and status from the perception that they are keeping society safe. However, Manning argues that the reliance on criminal law as a basis of social control tends to predominate in societies where other means of control (i.e. rule by consent) have failed. For example, the apartheid state had to rely on police repression to stay in power as a majority of the population rejected its legitimacy.

The question arises whether Mantashe and Ramathlodi's threat of police action against public violence stems from insecurity. Shortly after being re-elected as Cosatu general secretary in September 2012, Zwelinzima Vavi highlighted what he termed the 'the crisis of legitimacy' that the ANC and its alliance partners were facing. He went further to argue that the Marikana tragedy was a symptom of the growing social distance between the ruling alliance and the people they were meant to represent. Indeed, there is worrying evidence that an increasing number of citizens are turning to extreme methods to express their frustration, be it related to labour issues or to government service delivery failures.

In the 2011/12 financial year the police had to respond to 1 194 so-called 'unrest-related' incidents. These are incidents where the police were required to use some measure of force to 'stabilise' a public gathering that had turned violent. This works out to an average of over three incidents of public violence every day. While peaceful crowd-related incidents showed an 8% decrease when compared to the previous financial year, incidents involving violence increased by a substantial 23%.

Municipal IQ, an organisation that specifically monitors service delivery protests directed at local government, found that, between January and November 2012, a vast majority of such protests (i.e. 77,5% of the 160 service delivery protests recorded) were violent in nature.

The police cannot avoid responsibility for the maintenance of public order given that this is their legal mandate. At the very least, they need to be properly trained and equipped, and only if skilled negotiation fails should they use limited and proportional force as a last resort to restore order. However, our political leaders are making a very big mistake if they think that additional or more forceful policing is the answer to social disorder in South Africa. This path will only lead to more tragedies such as the death of Andries Tatane and the 34 Marikana mine workers at the hands of police. Rather, our political leaders would do well to improve service delivery at local level by appointing competent administrators and tackling corruption. Unfortunately, at this time there appears very little appetite to do this compared with a greater willingness to rely on police repression.

Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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