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Gunning for the poor: South Africa’s brutal policing

Using an unaccountable police force to enforce hardship on the poor and protect the corrupt has created a situation that is not only deadly for citizens but fatal for South Africa’s democracy.



The ugly face of police brutality, redolent of police action during apartheid, surfaced yet again during violent protests stemming from the allocation of fishing quotas in Hangberg, Cape Town. A 14-year-old boy, Ona Dubula, cowering behind a wooden table and posing no threat, was shot at close range by police. Two bullets lodged in his mouth; two cracked his ribs. A bullet that made a hole in his tongue had to be removed through surgery. A deeply disturbing video of the incident on social media, together with other damning photographs, has prompted the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to open a case of attempted murder.

For the people of Hout Bay, brutal policing is not new. There have been numerous previous incidents, including police action that resulted in death. According to the independent news agency Groundup, four people have lost their eyes as a result of disproportionate responses from the police.

Police and residents of Hangberg clashed in Hout Bay today. Photo: Kimon de Greef

As with the use of Tasers by police in the United States, rubber bullets can be deadly, but because officers perceive them as being non-lethal, police fire away without the necessary restraint.

An unsettled settlement

The Hout Bay area, which encompasses Hangberg and the informal settlement of Imizamo Yethu, is volatile. Protesters here have used deadly methods themselves, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police vehicles. However, these actions can surely not be used to justify excessive force by the police such as the shooting of a small, unarmed child at close to point-blank range. In addition, the behaviour of the police immediately after the event, when they manhandled the injured boy as if they were scared that he might run away and their failure to call for medical help, was as callous as the shooting. It showed a great disregard for life.


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The job of top cop has been mired in corruption.

This blatant disrespect for the people they police comes from the very top. The South African Police Service (SAPS) is very poorly lead. South Africa has been through a series of national police commissioners, all ending in ignominy, and the police is currently without a head. The job of top cop has been mired in corruption and the most recent commissioner infamously presided over the massacre of the Marikana miners. The current minister of police is best known for his clownish antics and self-promotion and simply doesn’t have the stature necessary to command the respect of the country’s police officers. The police’s disregard for the people they supposedly serve was once again made clear when, two days after the Hout Bay shooting, the deputy police minister, without explanation, cancelled a meeting with the community. Not surprisingly, the place once again erupted in violent protest.

Running battles took place in the road. Photo: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

The lack of leadership and accountability

In addition to the lack of proper leadership and guidance to members of the police, the situation in SAPS is compounded by an absence of internal accountability. There are seldom repercussions for a police officer who oversteps the line. IPID is slow and ineffective. In the first half of 2016/17 alone, there were 1 857 cases of assault, 207 deaths as a result of police action and another 154 deaths in police custody. Only 27 cases have resulted in criminal convictions to date.

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In the first half of 2016/17 alone, there were 207 deaths due to police action and another 154 deaths in police custody.

GroundUp, which took the lead with the story of the Ona Dubula shooting, has for years followed various cases fruitlessly investigated by IPID. This includes the case of a man who had been shot through both legs with live ammunition.


A protester is almost burnt as a burning tyre is moved to barricade the street. Photo: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

Taking a step back only makes the picture uglier. In the absence of policing by consent, control is established through the jackboot and the deployment of overwhelming numbers. The question is this: Why is consent absent? Part of the problem is the blurring of the function of the police. While the police are infamous for their impotence in dealing with rampant crime and gangsterism in poor communities, they are notable for their enforcement of hardship on the poor, through such actions as the eviction of land occupiers, the demolition of shacks, the implementation of water and electricity cut-offs, clamping down on dissent, protecting private land and so forth. Various poor communities have abandoned all trust in the police and turned to community patrols and vigilantism.

A construction vehicle burns in Hout Bay. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo

Take another step back and the picture gets even worse. We need to ask why there were protests in Hangberg in the first place. The trouble erupted over unpopular fishing quotas. For years, quotas have favoured the big corporations over poor, local fishermen, who have been largely excluded from decisions. The industry is government controlled through the issuing of quotas and licenses and has been plagued by corruption scandals for many years.

Surely it is not a simplistic interpretation to draw a straight line and say that 14-year-old Ona Dubula ended up being shot in the mouth at close range because the police were crushing a rebellion against a powerful elite lining their pockets with fishing quotas at the expense of poor fisher folk?