On 13 October 2017 the news site Times Live published an astonishing story of the abuse of a group of innocent men at the hands of South Africa’s current Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula. The somewhat lighthearted headline – ‘Oops! Mbalula red-faced as arrest triumph becomes PR nightmare’ – may have grabbed the story more readers, but its emphasis trivialises the seriousness of Mbalula’s grotesque behaviour. The story deserves to be widely read because it tells us what is in store for the public if this police minister is not stopped.

What happened?

In short, the police arrested eight men in the early hours of a Saturday morning. Their hands were bound behind their backs with cable ties and they were forced to lie face down on the roadside. The report says they were kept that way for three hours so that Minister Mbalula could arrive for a photo opportunity. He then tweeted pictures of himself strutting around in a flashy suit, lording it over the trussed-up men as he conducted his own impromptu and pointless roadside interrogation.

Mbalula tweeted pictures of himself strutting around in a flashy suit, lording it over the trussed-up men.

Police prepare to enter protest. Photo: GroundUp/Ashraf Hendricks

The report says the police claimed that the arrests were connected to murders in the informal settlement of Marikana in Cape Town and followed a protracted investigation with multiple intelligence operatives. It subsequently emerged that this claim was farcical. They were in fact bereaved family members who had been transporting the coffin of a dead relative to a funeral in the Eastern Cape. The coffin was opened and searched. The men were then held at the police station until Sunday, when they were released without charge.

Read: Cde Mbalula. Self-Righteousness Does Not Make South Africa Exceptional.

Even so, the minister continued to brag and tweet the pictures on Monday to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. (The tweets no longer appear on his feed.) He tweeted that “the men’s testicles should be crushed”, a meme that the police minister has been promoting. He appears to think that human rights abuses and torture are a locker-room joke. The minister has been egging on the police to be more brutal, more merciless, to make criminals “drink their own piss”.

Minister Mbalula has been egging on the police to be more brutal, more merciless.

The men involved claim that they were humiliated and beaten. They say the photographs showing them being paraded in public as criminals with their faces clearly visible has placed them in mortal danger. This is an entirely plausible claim to make in South Africa’s present climate.

A culture of vigilantism bred by poor policing

These men have good reason to fear for their lives. In the absence of policing, vigilantism in Marikana has become the order of the day, with beatings and lethal mob justice being dished out by people in the community for alleged crimes. Vigilantism is a highly destructive force in communities; it is insidious and divisive; it creates confusion and breeds criminals and crimes of its own.

File picture: South African Police fire stand guard during a protest. Photo: ANP/AFP / Schalk van Zuydam

The citizens of Marikana and other poor areas in Cape Town have been begging, marching, protesting and delivering memorandums to government and the local police station for some time now in a desperate attempt to get proper policing in their areas. They have been utterly ignored. Instead, their experience of policing is shack evictions and live ammunition being used against them when they defend their homes.

The Western Cape province’s Marikana informal settlement was named after the massacre by police of 34 miners in 2012 in the Marikana mining area near Rustenburg in the north of South Africa. The second Marikana has now had its own mass shooting: On a Friday night, 29 September 2017, 11 people were murdered, in what is believed to be retaliation by criminals for locals having organised patrols to protect themselves and their property. On another night earlier that week, seven males aged between 15 and 28 were also murdered. The precinct had 122 murders in the course of the previous year.

Police minister wants to bring in the army

As if the terror of crime was not enough, the community now finds itself at the mercy of an unfit minister stoking police brutality and wrongful arrest with his plans to unleash the military on them.

Read: Gunning for the poor: South Africa’s brutal policing

In response to the bad publicity (for the facts could not have been news to the minister!) that followed the carnage, police have been searching and arresting people in their droves. For the minister, it was just another good opportunity for a campaign stomp. Over 40 arrests were made in the days that followed the mass shooting. Of those arrests, only two were possibly linked to the murders. It was in this blunt operation that the funeral party was arrested and briefly touted as ‘a breakthrough’ in the supposed crackdown on crime.

Communities do want to see firm action against criminals and a strong, competent police presence in their areas. However, they do not need to be subjected to further human rights abuses by a minister of police who is no more than a buffoon with a Twitter account.