Judith February: The criminalisation of protest

Dying for water. Ironic in a province in which the Premier Thandi Modise glides through the streets in a German car worth R1.3 million and continues to defend her right to do so. There is something obscene about such arrogance of power in the face of such desperation by the poor and marginalised.

Just over a week ago, three people died at the hands of police as they protested in Mothutlung in North West province. Residents there have not had water for weeks and, understandably, they were frustrated. Mike Tshele and Osiah Rahube were allegedly shot at pointblank range, while Theodore Seema is alleged to have been pushed out of a moving nyala and later died of his injuries. A fourth man died this week while the Premier called for calm.

The deaths follow a litany of incidents in which South African Police Services (SAPS) members have been accused of using excessive force. Who could forget the picture of Andries Tatane, hands flung up in surrender, being shot by police?

And then on August 2012, the fateful Marikana massacre when police opened fire on striking mine workers and 38 miners were killed. Yet, despite the protest and indignation, no lessons seemed to have been learnt. The Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre continues its business in a slow and tiresome manner. Last week allegations were made that the SAPS were not co-operating with the commission. And so it has dragged on, with very few answers and no accountability thus far.

Can we also forget the police dragging Mozambican Mido Macia from the back of a police car and Macia's death? And then the arrest and 'roughing up' of Chumane Maxwele by President Zuma's 'blue light brigade'. These are the high-profile cases we are aware of. There may be a myriad others which do not make the headlines.

One wonders how Minster of Police Nathi Mthetwa and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega manage to retain their jobs with such a blight on the police force. Surely someone must take political responsibility? Yet, both seem to have very little idea or sufficient political will to fix the problem of brutality in the police force.

The increased brutality of the police cannot be separated from the political rhetoric of 'shoot to kill' , the increased militarisation of the police and the President himself calling on the police to monitor protests more carefully to curb 'threats to national security'.

The state appears to be at war with its citizens, unable to quell protests relating to the implementation of socio-economic rights. Its response: fear and a police force on the loose, inadequately trained to deal with protests.

According to the Right to Know campaign, the number of cases of police brutality has increased by 313% in the past 10 years.

This is staggering and should shake us all out of our complacency.

It is a year since the release of the South African Human Rights Commission's (HRC) report into the death of Andries Tatane made a number of recommendations.

Firstly, that the SAPS improve the 'training of police officers in managing and regulating gatherings to ensure that future police interventions in public protests result in a more peaceful and non-violent outcome.

Secondly, it recommended the SAPS, together with the HRC, develop a training manual for the SAPS Public Riot Unit.

Thirdly, the SAPS must actively engage with communities where there are popular protests.

Lastly, the Minister of Police and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) must report twice a year on measures put in place to address the phenomenon of increasingly violent community protests. COGTA is also required to report on measures to ameliorate systemic failures in local government and interventions to avoid service delivery protests.

These recommendations seem to have been ignored, as have various calls from the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution (CASAC) for the Minister of Police to clarify the position of the SAPS with regard to the circumstances when live ammunition may be used, and what measures have been put in place to ensure Constitutional rights of protesting citizens are not violated.

The criminalisation of legitimate protest cannot be allowed to continue. Nor can we live in a society in which there is little accountability for the deaths of poor citizens at the hands of the police.

Our country demands answers: for the families of the dead but also for those so desperate for water that they would turn on the state and be prepared to risk their lives.

Judith February is executive director of democracy and governance at the HSRC. The views expressed are her own.