South Africa: Lockdown Skiet, Skop En Donner - Experts Say Cops, Army Can Have Less Violent Approach

Almost as soon as the nationwide lockdown came into effect on Thursday midnight, reports of misconduct, the use of excessive force and brutality by law enforcement officers and soldiers circulated social media, causing outrage and fear among many South Africans.

Videos circulated of police officers and South African National Defence Force members beating residents in their own yards, forcing alleged wrongdoers to do strenuous exercise in the streets and, in three cases, allegedly killing residents.

The videos seemingly also depict an inconsistency between enforcement measures in poorer areas compared with more affluent suburbs.

On Friday, the country started a 21-day lockdown, an unprecedented measure aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At least five people have died of Covid-19 in South Africa, while at least 1 380 others have tested positive.

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) have reiterated that while South Africa was in a state of disaster, law enforcement was still bound by the Constitution.

They added it was not too late to explore alternative methods of enforcing the lockdown, without resorting to unnecessary violence as seen on social media and in the media.

Johan Burger, a researcher for the justice and violence prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said police should think about adjusting their behaviour in high-density areas like townships, where the living conditions mean many lockdown regulations simply weren't practical.

"In a way that's unfair to expect the police to make that kind of adjustment, they are simply not allowed. Still, one was hoping they would [exercise] some compassion, just to warn people and try engaging with them," Burger said.

One way to accomplish this, he added, was for the National Command Council to re-examine some lockdown regulations. He said it should take into consideration the realities of high-density areas where residents are simply unable to adhere to the current regulations.

"Give the police some room for adjustment in how they apply the law so there isn't that rigid approach that we see."

Proper and direct communication is also key.

Bringing in civil organisations to work with the police could enable them to educate the public on the dangers of Covid-19 and why the lockdown is important, Burger added.

"Use NGOs in those areas who are familiar with the conditions and who have legitimacy among the people, who could explain these things and hopefully get people to obey the measures, rather than calling for civil obedience and instead dealing with what is perceived as civil disobedience," Burger explained.

However, the message should also be made clearer to law enforcement.

"The whole point of these regulations is to protect South Africans against the virus and it should not be seen as an act against people who have become a threat to the state and law and order."

He added law enforcement should step away from a purely rigid approach.

However, this could only be achieved if the National Command Council amended regulations in densely-populated areas "and provide the police with the space that they need to be more compassionate", Burger said.

Thato Masiangoako, a researcher at SERI, also reiterated the need for clear communication, but placed emphasis on negotiation by law enforcement.

"Law enforcement agencies are getting their orders from a long chain of command... so what is very crucial is a clear denouncement of unlawful actions from the top," Masiangoako said.

While the defence minister has been more forthcoming in denouncing these actions, this still needed to be made clear by the police minister, Masiangoako added.

She said alternative methods to enforce the law was provided for in the SAPS Act, where there was an emphasis on negotiation.

"There needs to be an emphasis on de-escalation, so police should be speaking to people and do the best they can to use minimum force. It should not be their first course of action," she said.

Police Minister Bheki Cele's spokesperson, Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, told News24 that Cele had on a number of occasions emphasised the importance of enforcing the regulations within the confines of the law "where there is no provision for any form of violence".

Peters added Cele had "noted" the allegations levelled against law enforcement by the public and added that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) were investigating certain incidents.

"People must report any wrong or unlawful conduct by members of law enforcement agencies so that these can be investigated by relevant institutions such as the IPID," Peters said.

Source: News24

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