Twenty-two years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa conceals a harsh reality: the country’s political elite is beginning to forget its promise that, as the country’s post-apartheid 1996 constitution guaranteed, “never again” would state-sanctioned violence against its people be witnessed. Despite the institutional achievements of the Mandela administration, including a strong constitution and government accountability, it is now evident that the apartheid legacy of a police state ruling by force has remained. Today, under President Jacob Zuma’s governance, it has even become clear that not only has little been done to change that legacy, but police force is being used in ways that have led some to question the strength of democracy in South Africa.
Much of Zuma’s second term as president of the African National Congress, the party that has been in power since Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, has been spent battling allegations of corruption. He has been accused of using state money on personal upgrades to his home located in Nkandla, just hours southeast of Johannesburg. His opponents have also alleged that he has placed his cronies into top government positions. Having survived many motions of no confidence in the National Assembly, South Africa’s parliament, Zuma is evidence that the status quo will remain in South Africa. Specifically, his need to protect himself from state institutions and politicians trying to hold him accountable will mean an increased police presence in the lives of a population already distrustful of the police.
A Police Untrusted
Introduced by the National Party in 1948, apartheid was a system of institutionalized racism in South Africa that ensured white South Africans would retain economic, political, and social power. It ensured “separate development” in an effort to segregate every aspect of the country’s society. Though the apartheid regime was able to marginalize the country’s black majority, a resistance movement began to rise with the emergence of organizations such as uMkhonto weSizwe, a military wing of the ANC. In the 1960s, preying on Cold War-era fears of communism, the National Party gained the support of the United States and banned the ANC, claiming they were communists. Prominent struggle leaders, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In an attempt to crush any remaining resistance to apartheid, the NP government introduced the Terrorism Act in 1967, which allowed police to detain anyone who they thought “might endanger the maintenance of law and order.” Under this law, along with other forms of pro-police legislation passed in the 1960s and ’70s, historians estimate that 217 activists were detained. Many look to the ‘accidental’ death of Black Consciousness movement leader Steve Biko in 1977 as the most horrific legacy of the act. In 1976, Biko’s movement inspired thousands of students in Soweto, a township south of Johannesburg, to march against the government’s discriminatory single-language Afrikaans policy. It would later be exposed that Biko was beaten to death by security police while in detention.
Forty years later, in 2015, university students once again took to the streets, this time to protest an increase in fees at South African universities. Student protesters forcibly shut down universities to demand that university fees be dropped for all because, as Reuters reported, “the fees [made] attending university impossible for many black youth.” The campaign, which became known as the #FeesMustFall movement, proved effective when Zuma declared that no university fees would increase for the 2016 year. Buoyed by this initial success, students then marched in late-2016 to demand completely free higher education for the 2017 year. This time, however, South African TV stations broadcast countless bloody encounters of police quelling protests. Some of the students had resorted to violence (with some looting shops near the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg), but most were peaceful. Nevertheless, reports emerged that police responded to protesters with rubber bullet shots and tear gas. It was reported that 831 student activists were arrested, some of whom still remain in police custody without the prospect of a bail hearing.
Zuma would only break his silence as news of the violent encounters between the students and police began to spread around the world. A statement from his office read: “We urge the students to explore peaceful avenues to engage on this issue constructively. The destruction of property is a criminal offence and will be treated as such by the law enforcement authorities.”
A Police Unleashed
Evidence of the extent to which Zuma would rely on police action appeared soon after his inauguration in July 2009, with his appointment of Bheki Cele as National Commissioner of Police. Infamous for his ruthless rhetoric, Cele instructed police to “shoot to kill” criminals without concern as to “what happens after that.” Despite an alarming increase in police-involved violence, Zuma expressed confidence in Cele, urging police in September 2015 to “defend yourselves with everything at your disposal if you are attacked, within the confines of the law. Our laws allow the police to fight back decisively when their lives or those of the public are threatened.”
In an interview with the HPR, Max Du Preez, a South African political author and columnist who has about Zuma’s administration, noted that “[Zuma] has failed miserably in transforming the police to a people-centred protection and crime-fighting service.” In fact, Du Preez argued, “the police [have become] even more militarised,” and “accountability, right up to the minister, has dwindled.” Although the country’s constitution prevents South Africa from becoming a de jure police state, Du Preez observed “troubling tendencies” in how police currently operate. These troubling tendencies were on full display during the 2012 Marikana massacre, which remains one of the darkest days since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy.
Workers at the Marikana platinum mine, just 100 miles northwest of Johannesburg, were striking for better wages and working conditions, but the Lonmin Company, which owned the mine, refused to negotiate with the workers and instead called for the police to resolve the conflict. On August 16, police opened fire, killing 34, injuring at least 78, and arresting more than 250 of the miners. Most of the victims had been shot in the back, many without a single weapon, and far from police lines. At the Farlam Commission of Inquiry put together to investigate the details of the incident, the South African Police Service defended its actions by arguing that “[the workers] were acting as a single concerted group under command and instruction, bent on a very murderous route.”
However, attention soon drifted away from the police involved to the political agents behind the scenes. The commission uncovered an email sent on the eve of the shootings by then-ANC National Executive and business mogul, Cyril Ramaphosa, to company management. Ramaphosa declared that the protests were “plainly dastardly criminal acts and must be characterized as such.” Ramaphosa was a shareholder and director at Lonmin. Despite this glaring conflict of interest, the commission—which Zuma had assembled—abdicated Ramaphosa of any responsibility.
In an interview with the HPR, Daniel de Kadt, a PhD candidate in South African political science at MIT, drew a picture of how Zuma’s government has on the public front supported many mass protests, only to then order police to quell the protests. Using parallels to several mass protests and conducting Twitter analysis, de Kadt pointed to a tweet from the ANC during the #FeesMustFall movement’s protests which read: “We have called on ANC members to join the March of students to the Union Buildings & support students”. According to Kadt, this is evidence of how the ANC attempts “to merge itself with the student movement, blurring the lines between protesters and the incumbent regime.” In doing so, the ANC abdicates itself of accountability. It is easy to find similarities between the ANC’s handling of #FeesMustFall, and its handling of Marikana. After many had called on the president to release his report on the Farlam Commission’s findings, he remained silent for years. Instead, the ANC used social media to praise a documentary about the massacre, ‘Miners Shot Down’ stating it “encourages South African voices to continue telling the story of South Africa”.
As Du Preez points out, there is a disinterested and “uncaring attitude of the present government when it comes to people opposed to the governing party”.
A Police Uninterested
Newspapers like The City Press allege that Zuma has put many of his cronies into positions of power. Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas recently came forward, revealing that friends of Zuma, the Gupta family, had offered him the position of Finance Minister after Zuma fired then-Nhlanhla Nene because of his alleged rebellion against the Gupta’s corruption.
In 2016, Zuma’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, a loyal ANC member with the party’s deviance from good governance decided to crack down on the plan by Zuma to benefit from a nuclear energy deal with Russia involving the Guptas. Gordhan refused to pay for the ambitious and costly project, which, according to The Mail and Guardian, South Africa could not afford. Gordhan was issued with a warrant of imminent arrest by the police’s investigative unit, the Hawks.
“The Zuma administration has allowed the police to be under-policed very badly,” John Comaroff, a professor of African Studies at Harvard, told the HPR, adding that “the police killings and killing of political protestors is truly un-South African.” Comaroff believes that brutal public order policing in any country cannot be separated from that country’s leadership: “During the Bush era, we saw a peaceful New York protest on globalization being quelled and Bush responding to it as ‘a minor popular forum.’” Leaders, Comaroff said, “use the excuse of public order to protect private property [and interest]. The contradiction of policing being predicated on violence without supervision becomes terrifying. And South Africa has that problem.”
“Media has weakened over the last two decades … [though] there are some commendable exceptions,” Du Preez said. “Still, civil society is in the process of becoming more activist and energetic and is increasingly also watching over the police.” Likewise, Comaroff is hopeful about the future of the country. “I have faith in the capacity of South Africa to argue with itself. It sometimes screams at itself, often it is very rude. But rudeness is not always very bad. It has a shock effect, but it forces people to listen.”
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