A video in South Africa appeared last week displaying the brutal treatment of a taxi driver at the hands of South African police officers. The amateur footage of the incident soon went viral and has commentators questioning the wider performance of state security in the so-called “Rainbow Nation.”
Filmed on a mobile phone, the video shows a hand-bound young man dragged by a police van through the township streets of Daveyton, east of Johannesburg. The male, 27-year-old Mido Macia, died in detention shortly afterwards. His crime was said to have been illegally parking his taxicab, before resisting arrest. The officers face trial for his death.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glV9zcmHbFc]
This graphic video depicts South African police offers binding and dragging Mido Macia from a police car

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega decried the conduct of the police as “abhorrent” and stated that it “clearly goes against the values that the South African Police Service (SAPS) represent.” Her comments, though, ostensibly illuminate a discrepancy between the principles at the top and practices at the bottom throughout South African law enforcement.

Recently, efforts have been made to rectify these apparently systematic problems. A SAPS spokesperson told this publication that the sanctions taken against the officers “should be understood in two contexts: that the government will not tolerate corruption and that we are decisive in rooting out such criminals who hide behind our uniform and badges.”

To many, the Macia incident is suggestive of a much graver problem in the SAPS. To some, systematic police violence in South Africa reflects a historical reliance on violence that has plagued the country since the days of apartheid. South Africa has an unenviable reputation when it comes to violent crime – a reputation thrust into the public’s eye in recent weeks by a number of high-profile cases such as the one of Macia and the shooting of model Reeva Steenkamp, allegedly by her boyfriend and Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius. These recent incidents have only served to bring to light what has been a long standing policing issue in South Africa.

The facts don’t always tell the full story

Crime figures in the country are complex. The annual SAPS Report 2012 suggests that cases of violent crime are on a steadily downward trajectory. Recorded murders were down by around three percent since 2011 – but that still yields a figure higher than the U.S., which has a population six times larger. Crime Stats SA, a website dedicated to publishing accurate crime statistics, features an interactive map detailing crimes by region. A particularly telling message appears on screen while users wait for the map to appear:  “Please be patient,” it requests. “We have a lot of data to load.”

Indeed, marginally falling crime rates are not translating into ameliorated public sentiment, towards either the performance of the police or feelings about the security of South Africans more generally. Chandre Gould, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), speaks of a “poor match between crime trends and public perception.”

“Even though the stats tell us that the rate’s coming down, the truth is that it remains very high. And many people have the experience either personally of being victims of violent crime, know of someone else who has, or have read about cases in the newspaper. And so there is a general sense that crime is constantly present,” she points out.

A grand narrative of violence

The footage of Mido Macia’s mistreatment underscores the extent to which violent practices are employed by the SAPS. It is far from the first incident of its kind. It is not even the first time an incident such as this has been caught on camera. In April 2011, Andries Tatane died from wounds inflicted by police after protest skirmishes in the Free State town of Ficksburg. Seven officers were charged with his death and are still on trial.

These instances bring to mind one of the most remembered casualties of the apartheid years: the death in custody of activist Steve Biko in 1977. Police reports claimed that Biko had died following an extended hunger strike; a post-mortem examination showed on the contrary that the 30-year-old had suffered a brain haemorrhage as a result of blows to the head.

Meanwhile, massive global interest has been centered on the unfolding Pistorius-Steenkamp, interest perked by the celebrity names involved. This murder case seems pertinent as well, illuminating how fragile the security situation currently is in South Africa, and how quickly violence is resorted to. Meanwhile, the chief detective in the case has himself resigned from his post after being implicated in a separate homicide.

As Christopher Hope, writing for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian puts it, “the oddest thing about the Pistorius shooting is that it isn’t really odd at all. Upwards of 15,000 times a year – and I am talking of a good year – a man reaches for a weapon, and someone, often a woman, dies.” Whatever comes of the trial of the athlete, the discomfort it has stirred seems guaranteed to have a lasting impact.

If found innocent, Pistorius’s contention that he believed an intruder was in the house – justifying the speed with which he took violent action – would help to highlight how insecure South Africans feel even in their own private spaces. Indeed, while figures show that the murder rate is decreasing, house robberies remain high. Should the athlete be found guilty, it would simply be a single high-profile case among many other similar ones, and might, as noted by Gould in a recent article, “give rise to a clamor of questions about South Africans’ ‘moral decay’ and apparent penchant for violence.” It appears those questions are already on the lips of many.

A vicious cycle of violence

If getting to the root of this issue is vital, the history of apartheid seems a useful point of departure. Traditions of police violence and civilian protest have unquestionably been carried over into the “new South Africa.” For example, figures published by Municipal IQ show a sharp upsurge over recent years of community service protesting. Apartheid-era struggle songs often make an appearance at these gatherings, as do heavy-handed police presences. Such was the case at the Marikana platinum mine last August, where thirty-six miners were gunned down during protests. Understandably, comparisons were quickly drawn between the incident and the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960.

A Witwatersrand (Wits) University study, exploring the rise of South African community insurgency, finds that the violence in South Africa is part of an “embedded cycle,” especially in townships and informal settlements.

The study states that, “the insurgent civil society of the struggle against apartheid during the 1980s established violent practices as an integral element of civil society mobilisation and of struggles for citizenship, so it is not surprising that similar repertoires of violence are apparent in current insurgencies over citizenship and exclusion.”

“Just as much as the protesters drew from the repertoires of anti-apartheid protest, so the police appeared to draw from the repertoires of apartheid-era repression of protest,” the paper continues.

The paper draws the conclusion that the SAPS is, in almost all cases, integral in the spread of violence: “The police are critically important protagonists in collective violence, both when they are absent from scenes of mass violence, and when they themselves engage in collective violence against protesting communities.”

The cycle is a vicious one. Of course, there is no neat thread connecting low-level township unrest with a lofty national murder rate, but there is also no ignoring the ease with which violence is instigated throughout the country. “It is a short distance from violent protests to the embedding of violence in political processes more generally,” the Wits paper argues.

A call for proactive action

Changing the way South Africans think about violence is difficult. To some, it is an undertaking that those at the top have largely avoided. Gould argues that there is a need “to start changing our systems from focusing on how to punish crime, to preventing it from happening.” She suggests that because violence has been a domestic reality for South Africans, the problem can be tackled at a grassroots level.

“Changing the high level of violence and rape starts with how we care for and protect children and requires the involvement of everyone – parents, teachers, politicians, nurses, doctors, social workers and psychologists. Even bus and taxi drivers need to watch that bullying does not take place on the bus on the way to school and back home; and need to have somewhere to report if it does.”

The Wits paper makes the pertinent claim that, “violence is understood as a language, a message” in South Africa; violence is simply another means of communication. The SAPS speak of a “triple-C approach” to better policing, in which communication plays a key role (along with control and cooperation), noting in an interview that they are “improving communication within the police as well as how we communicate with the society we are policing.”

From top to bottom, nobody would seem to disagree that an active discourse on the issue is needed. Understanding how best to communicate without violence is a step that all South Africans must take. But so long as those charged with keeping the peace continue to undermine such a process, it seems unlikely that the cycle of violence plaguing South Africa will be rectified any time soon.