Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The failure of transformation

In the 1990s, in the lead up to, and immediately following our first democratic elections in 1994, there was a lot of talk of the need for transformation. We needed to transform the institutions of the old apartheid society so that they became more appropriate for our new ideals of democracy and freedom. One of the institutions that was most in need of transformation was the police.

There were some attempts at transformation, symbolic, but significant. Instead of being called a police “force”, it became a police “service”. The old military ranks were abolished — generals, brigadiers, colonels, majors, captains and the like, and replaced by ones more appropriate for civil police — inspectors and such.

But now it seems that these changes were merely cosmetic. Underneath the new terminology, the police were not really transformed, but were simply the old monster dressed up in more politically correct terminology. And in the last few months there have been several scandals that have been broadcast around the world that seem to demonstrate the truth of this. These scandals include:

  • The lead detective in the murder case against Olympic and Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius was removed from the investigation last week when it emerged he was facing seven attempted murder charges for allegedly opening fire on a minibus full of passengers.
  • Police shot dead 34 striking workers at a platinum mine in August last year – the deadliest security incident since apartheid ended in 1994.
  • The video footage and the man’s death raised fresh concerns about police brutality in a country where more than 1,200 people a year die while in custody.

via Man dragged by South Africa police dies in custody – Yahoo! News.

An old friend, now a retired Anglican bishop in the UK, who used to live in South Africa but was forced out by the apartheid regime, recently wrote:

S Africa has been much in our news recently.  The Pistorius business has been extraordinarily prominent in our media,  including the BBC,  day after day main headline.  It has, among other things,  provoked the attached piece of gloom,  in one of our most respected papers.  I don’€™t like it much,  as it seems to depend too much on innuendo.  But today’€™s news about the police & a taxidriver does seem to confirm that things are bad in that department.

What can I say?

When one reads the news, especially reports involving the police, it seems, well, so pre-1994.

I’m not surprised at the prominence of the Pistorius business. In Oscar Pistorius we in South Africa have our very own O.J. Simpson, whose trial for the murder of his wife became an international cause célèbre in the media a few years ago. even though the sport he played meant that until his trial, he was little known outside the USA. Every nation in the world takes part in the Olympic Games, however, so Oscar Pistorius’s trial will garner even more public attention. Sporting celebrities charged with murder do seem to attract media attention, and when attention is focused on such cases, the police need to be very careful with evidence, which they seem to have been careless about in both cases. Sporting celebrities charged with murder tend to undergo trial by media. O.J. Simpson at least escaped trial by Twitter.

Daveyton taxi driber arrested for parking offence and dragged behind a police van to the police station, where he died

Daveyton taxi driver arrested for parking offence and dragged behind a police van to the police station, where he died

The Oscar Pistorius case is sub judice, and so I don’t want to say anything about the merits of the case, but the police handling of it raises several questions, one of which is the police’s handling of taxi drivers, which also came up in the other instance mentioned by Yahoo! News.

Like many South African drivers, I sometimes with the police would take more action against some taxi drivers, who are often a law unto themselves, turning right from the left-hand lane, and vice versa, or driving straight from a turning lane, forcing their way into the traffic. But what I have in mind by “police action” is a ticket and a fine (not a bribe), not a death penalty without a trial.

The behaviour of the Daveyton police looks too much like the defenestrations in the bad old says of apartheid. It looks like the same police culture, untransformed.

What has changed? What has been transformed?

Are we any better off than we were in the bad old days of apartheid?

Yes, I think we are better off.

Things may be bad, but they are not as bad as they were back then.

Consider this, for example Acting police minister welcomes Daveyton cop suspension – Times LIVE:

Acting Police Minister Siyabonga Cwele welcomed on Friday the suspension of police officers allegedly involved in the death of a taxi driver.

“All police officers have a duty to fight crime and those who are not worthy of wearing our badge and uniform, must know that they have no place within SAPS [SA Police Service],” he said in a statement.

Can you imagine B.J. Vorster saying anything like that when he was Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons back in the 1960s?

Back then, if anyone dared to criticise the police for such actions, Vorster would publicly denouce them as unpatriotic communists and liberalists trying to besmirch the good name of our noble and upright police force.

In 1960 Philp Kgosana led a protest march of 30000 people into the middle of Cape Town, a few days after 69 people had been killed at Sharpeville. Philip Kgosana met and discussed the matter with a senior policeman, and after their speeches the people all marched peacefully home again. And that was the end of that policeman’s career. He got no more promotions, because the members of the cabinet wanted another bloodbath like Sharpeville and he didn’t give it to them.

Ok, a Facebook friend of mine takes a somewhat more cynical view. He wrote this morning:

So the police drag a taxi driver after hand cuffing him to the back of a police van. This is what happens when police are deployed by the ruling class to enforce and defend the most unequal society on the planet, to defend a cheap labour economy that dehumanises and criminalises the working class and the poor. This is the fruits of neo-liberalism!

I think he has a point, but, again, Vorster never said anything like this Zuma Calls Daveyton Cop Footage ‘Horrific’ – MSN ZA News:

“The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable,” Zuma said in a statement.

“No human being should be treated in that manner.”

He was referring to a video, taken by an eyewitness, showing police officers dragging Mozambican national Mido Macia, 27, behind a police van on Tuesday.

Macia was later found dead in the holding cells of the Daveyton police station.

Zuma condemned the death. He said the police were required to operate within the confines of the law in executing their duties. He extended condolences to Macia’s family and directed Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to investigate.

There may not be much transformation in what the police do, but there is a transformation in what people in government feel they ought to say publicly about it. That must count for something, mustn’t it?

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