SAHRC calls on SAPS to come up with better ways of controlling protesters

The conduct of police is once again in sharp focus after Mthokozisi Ntumba was killed in Braamfontein earlier this month when police fired rubber bullets at a group of protesting students.

A large group of South African Police Service (SAPS) officers disperse a group of students who were blocking roads during a protest in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on 10 March 2021. Picture: Emmanuel Croset/AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Amid growing calls for government to review the use of rubber bullets, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is on Monday calling on the police service to come up with alternative crowd control measures.

The conduct of police is once again in sharp focus after Mthokozisi Ntumba was killed in Braamfontein earlier this month when police fired rubber bullets at a group of protesting students.

In August last year, 9-year-old Leo Williams died two weeks after he was shot in the head with a rubber bullet during a service delivery protest on the West Coast.

WATCH: Police brutality in South Africa: Are rubber bullets necessary?

The SAHRC’s Chris Nissen said there were other ways to pacify the public, even in volatile situations.

“Last year, we did not train a single police officer, we were supposed to have trained 7,000 of them. So we will have to see how we find a way going forward but all and all with a few bad police, we have thousands and thousands of good SA police service officers"

This is how the year 2021 kicked off for the police service under the leadership of Minister Bheki Cele.

And three months down the line, the conduct of some of his officers is under the microscope and in some cases, it’s on the court roll.

“It has no grain of defence or explanation on it.... Somebody for me just went crazy.”

Cele was unable to explain the conduct of some of his officers in Braamfontein this month when they opened fire on protesting students.

Tragically, Ntumba - a young father - was killed while leaving a local clinic.

WATCH: ‘Defending police criticism is slowly becoming difficult’ - Bheki Cele

The South African Police Union's Acting General Secretary Peter Ntsime acknowledges that officers work under difficult circumstances - and most of the time - they're simply acting on government's instructions.

“Police officers don’t take these rubber bullets on their own, they are issued with them. We understand the outcry of the public, the question is what can be done? Because the police don’t have the capacity to deal with all the protesters in this country.”

Officers say the problem lied deeper than their response to unruly crowds.

They need proper training, sufficient resources and the necessary back up to do their jobs.

SAHRC TO MEET WITH SAPS

The SAHRC said it would be meeting with the SAPS in the coming days to make suggestions on how officers can better pacify the public.

David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security.

He also sat on the panel of experts appointed by the Marikana commission of inquiry to look into all the policing problems highlighted by the 2012 massacre.

He said: “A case of serious negligence on the part of the management of police and potentially of government that they have failed to properly regulate the manner in which police use rubber bullets.”

Bruce said rubber bullets were a major problem in South Africa because there weren't proper guidelines on when officers should use them - and crucially - when they should not.

“The police almost treat them as something that they can use without real concern about the potential harm that they will cause. So, you have them being used widely when there should be must stricter control.”

Nissen said the only way to improve the situation and avoid the use of rubber bullets was through continued training and officers needed to change their attitudes.

“If you just see the crowd as an unnecessary nuisance, criminals… and you give them three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes. It’s not always useful.”

While the commission wants police to stop using rubber bullets for crowd control, Bruce is against the banning of rubber bullets, insisting they should be used but only in the right manner and under strict control.

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