Image: Spenser (Unsplash)

Before 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the nation-wide lockdown, one may have been forgiven for thinking that police brutality in South Africa (SA) did not exist or at least did not exist at alarming rates. Indeed, such thinking becomes more understandable when considering that the post-Apartheid South African government promised a break away from the past of Apartheid – a past that was characterised by a host of police brutality. As with many other realities, COVID-19 and the lockdown have forced South African communities to look itself in the mirror and face the truth. That truth being that police brutality in SA has existed and continues to exist at alarming rates. In fact, the rate of police brutality in SA is three times as much as the police brutality in the United States of America (USA). What is more damning is that SA – despite being 5 times smaller than the USA – has more people killed by its police, which is three times more per capita than in the USA. Undoubtedly, such facts only serve to emphasise the unbridled nature of police brutality in SA. While there are indeed several reasons for this existence, I argue that the rampant nature of police brutality can be explained by two factors: the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s (IPID’s) cover-up of cases laid against the police, and a complacency for South African social media to express outrage against police brutality that is not recorded.

First and foremost, police brutality in SA has managed to simultaneously remain under the radar and continue its rampant nature because cases of police brutality have been covered up. Crucial to this cover-up is the IPID prematurely closing cases with very little and improper investigation. In fact, IPID’s irregular and premature closure of cases had occurred with such regularity that former Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela sent a letter to the Directorate informing the organisation of her intent to investigate the irregular closure of cases. To put this into context, between April 2012 and March 2019, 42 365 criminal cases against the police were registered by IPID and only 531 resulted in criminal convictions. Ironically, however, IPID’s continued premature closure of cases has given the pretence that police brutality has been dealt with when, as the aforementioned statistics show, it has been dealt with on the rare occasion. Thus, continued premature and irregular closure of criminal cases against the police not only means many South Africans are deprived of justice, but it means that police brutality has been allowed to continue virtually unabated. 

Secondly, social media has played a part in allowing police brutality to run rampant in SA. It has done this by displaying a complacency in expressing public outrage for the countless murders, during and prior to the nationwide lockdown, that occurred without any footage. Take for instance the murder of George Floyd, whose death was recorded, resulting in police brutality in the USA being placed firmly in the spotlight. Not long after his death outrage was aptly expressed through social media across the world including in SA and Africa as a whole. It is worth noting that prior to Floyd’s death, 11 people died from police brutality in SA with very little outrage and of that 11, Collins Khosa’s death received delayed reaction. This is because, as William Shoki explains, realities on social media are often ‘preceded and determined by mediatised representation’. That is to say that, in the context of police brutality globally and in SA specifically, the availability and existence of footage determines not only the reaction on social media, but the extent of the reaction as well. Indeed this is true, particularly when the murders of George Floyd and Collins Khoza are compared.  

It is needless to say that police brutality has gone on for far too long in this country, nevertheless, to deal with it the abovementioned factors ought to be addressed or changed. The case of Nathaniel Julius is showing a semblance of such change. IPID’s investigation into the murder of Nathaniel Julius has resulted in the conviction of three police officers meanwhile on social media, without the existence of footage, the murder has garnered public outrage that has caught international attention. Certainly, if both these actions become a norm, it will go a long way to ensure that not only do victims receive justice but that the rampant nature of police brutality is checked.

Tokologo Ramodibe is a graduate, who is completing his Masters in International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand. His interests include diplomacy, gender studies and human rights. He hopes to one day pursue a career in the foreign diplomatic service.


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