As record numbers of service delivery protests are recorded alongside gatherings related to industrial action, South Africa is earning itself a reputation as the protest capital of the world. And although Marikana will stand out this year as an extreme example of a protest gone terribly wrong, it has, unfortunately, not occurred in a vacuum.
The ability of the police to facilitate protests without trampling on human rights has been rigorously tested in recent years. It did not begin with Marikana. Last year, the death of Free State activist Andries Tatane was the first strong signal of a police force battling to facilitate the surge of community protests across the country.
Tatane, a 33-year-old teacher and community activist, was shot during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in April 2011. Tatane’s death, captured on camera and replayed on national television sets, invited an opportunity to understand the protests, not as instances of an endemic madness, but a struggle for decency in life and in death.
While the criminal trial of the seven officers arrested for Tatane’s death continues, the SAHRC has launched its own investigation, following a complaint laid by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution about the behaviour of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The SAHRC’s findings were damning. In crude terms, the SAHRC found the police were in over their heads in Ficksburg, which led to the use of excessive force on Tatane.
"The respondents’ members used a degree of force that was disproportionate in the factual circumstances of the case, and in doing so, unduly limited and violated that deceased protester’s right to life in terms of section 11 of the Constitution and/or freedom and security of the person in terms of section 12 of the Constitution; and the protesting public and deceased protester’s right to peacefully and unarmed assemble, demonstrate, to picket and present petitions," SAHRC commissioner Danny Titus said, quoting from the report.
The SAHRC also criticised the failure of SAPS to authorise a "suitably qualified" member to represent police at negotiations with the protesters, and to ensure an adequate number of police officers were deployed.
In August, SAPS top brass – including national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega – explained at a briefing to Parliament’s police committee that crowd control training had “not been a priority” after 1994, as the country had become “pretty stable”.
“It is only in the wake of the new protests that crowd management training is once more coming to the fore,” briefing documents are reported to have said.
The SAHRC recommended the SAPS improve its training programmes and develop a training manual for riot police in conjunction with the commission.
However, the SAHRC also expressed its regret regarding the lack of co-operation from the police during the investigation. Requests to the Ministry of Police and senior management of the SAPS to provide reports into what happened during the Ficksburg protest, and invitations to respond to allegations, were not answered.
Titus said the relationship between the SAHRC and the SAPS was marked by “professional distance”. He said that while police often attended SAHRC seminars, other engagements with the SAHRC have been less cordial. “In other instances, we had to threaten SAPS with subpoenas,” Titus said.
SAHRC CEO Kayum Ahmed, however, bluntly described the relationship between the commission and SAPS as “antagonistic”.
Titus went on to narrate the shame one senior police officer spoke of feeling as he watched footage of Tatane’s death on television with his daughter. He also related complaints from police officers who believed human rights commissioners failed to understand the pressure SAPS members were placed under during a protest.
One officer recently asked, “Have you ever been in a crowd?”
“The most interesting thing to us is: SAPS walks on a tightrope. The same Constitution that gives all of us our human rights also gives the SAPS the right to infringe [on] those rights. They have the right to arrest you, to restrict movement; they have the monopoly on force in the country,” Titus said.
He believes the “shoot to kill” approach adopted by police under Commissioner Beki Cele left police arrogant.
“In light of Marikana, we can see police don’t see that they need to say sorry,” he said.
Trevor Ngwane, a community activist who recently completed a Master’s dissertation on service delivery protests, agrees. “Tatane‘s death is a display of an attitude: If you protest, we will clobber your head.”
The SAHRC, however, went beyond the scope of police activity in the Ficksburg protest, pointing out that an increasing incidence of service delivery protests ultimately led to the death of Tatane. To this end, the SAHRC recommended that the Minister of Traditional Affairs and Local Governance “report on measures to ameliorate systemic failures in local government that often lead to service delivery protests, and report to the Commission on meaningful engagement on such concerns as to avert these protests.”
Titus pointed out, “It’s not the police that have to provide municipal services, but they are brought in to face the people every time local government fails.”
Ngwane is encouraged.
“It affirms what many of us have always known – that something must be done about the grievances of the people regarding service delivery. Because instead of responding to complaints, the police are sent in,” he said.
He disagrees, however, with the SAHRC’s assessment of community protests becoming “increasingly violent”.
“There is a perception that they are violent, but my sense is that they are disruptive rather than violent,” he said.
According to Ngwane, communities are increasingly pushed to take drastic measures to grab the attention of the authorities.
“I would say the protests are becoming increasingly desperate,” he said.
“And police, even if they are told to treat protesters well… The number of protests that happen often leave them overwhelmed.”
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.