Speaking to an Officer, a Criminal and a Mother – Seeking Answers to the Surge in Police Brutality

I peer through a yellowed lace curtain onto a township street with the unease of an obvious newcomer. Children are hurried indoors and women hasten their pace to get home before all light is lost. The last of the sun disappears behind a sea of silver shacks, thin dogs and rusted clothes lines. Darkness once again envelopes Langa, one of South Africa’s largest informal settlements and a mounting hotbed for crime.

Langa Township
Langa Township, Photo by Graeme Churchard (Wikipedia)

I can sense fear in every corner. Patience, a 65 year old domestic worker, drags her tired feet to a screaming kettle, which seems to echo a greater sense of alarm. Her weary eyes jump quickly to the window, and then back at the tea that she is preparing. It is a Friday night.

Danger lurks in every street and security is a comfort that these residents will never experience. I am here to speak about the role of the police in Patience’s life. I want to understand her stance on the matter of crime in Langa, and whether or not she agrees with the police’s brutal acts against criminals. She sinks into her faded armchair and her creased face cracks a pained smile.

“You look afraid”, she says.


I tell her that I am. “You should be”.

I begin to regret coming.

Political journalist Courtney Savage
Political & media student, and author of this article, Courtney Savage

Despite the insidious cloud of fear that hangs over the room, I do not forget for a second that this is a home and, despite the lack of security, it is a great source of happiness to this woman. Patience’s roots lie deep in Langa, having spent most of her adult life in the same shack. She recalls a fond memory of meeting her late husband at the church that she still attends. Church is what brings her happiness. She sings in the choir and helps run the Burial Committee – a vital lifeline for a community faced with more death than it can afford. Sadly, now it has gotten to a point that she does not even feel safe walking home from church after a late service.

Her eyes shine when she shows me some faded photographs of her children, before they grew up and left the home.

“Those days, it was better. They could go play in the streets and I would not worry. But these days…it is not safe. I will not let my granddaughter play outside. She must stay inside when she visits me”.

Patience is referring to the overwhelming surge in township crime and violence that we have seen in the past decade. Gang activity is at an all time high, further exacerbating violence, drug addiction, alcoholism and rape to a level that none of the residents have seen before. Murder touches nearly every life here and drug-related crimes have tripled since 2004.

It is well known here in Langa that the weekends are the least safe days, because the men finish work and drink copious amounts of alcohol at the local shebeens. As a result of extreme poverty and dire hopelessness, the suppressed anger of these men turns into violence. They fight, they rape and they kill, leaving vulnerable people like Patience boarded up in their homes from fear.

Patience recounts the story of how one of her daughters fell victim to this atrocity. “They followed her home from the spaza shop. I told her never to walk by herself in the dark but she did not listen. Four drunk men beat her until she could not fight anymore. Then they raped her. She remembers it because she was awake, but she could not stop them. Someone found her later and brought her home”.

A stoic silence flattens the air. “It took her many months to heal”.

This is one of countless violent stories to be told from this place, which makes me realise how desensitized this community is becoming, due to these stories’ sheer magnitude and frequency.

“The police here are trying to stop these men from hurting us. We are tired of being afraid of walking to church. We don’t want to live like this anymore. Not just in the night. It is every day. Not just the weekends. I am always afraid. We see these men, they fight in the streets right here.” She points out the window that I was nervously gazing through earlier.

“A man was stabbed behind that house there a few months ago. An old man. They killed him for his money.”

I ask her how she feels about the local police’s brutal reputation.

“They make me feel safer when they are around, because they punish the men hard when they catch them. They beat them hard and they teach them a lesson. I think it is good because then the others will learn. If the police catch them doing bad things they know they will pay”.

I ask her what she makes of police brutality, and bring up the story of taxi driver Joseph Macia, the man who died in police custody after being dragged behind a moving police vehicle. “I think it is good. They are doing their jobs. These men are bad! What they do to us is much worse than what the police do to them!”

Patience, like many of the more vulnerable community members here in Langa, approve of the police’s harsh tactics, because they feel it sends an important preventative message to other perpetrators.

At first, I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that she could accept such violence from our own public protectors. But then I remembered that she has been exposed to far more disturbing things in her lifetime. Here, violence is a part of day to day life. This community has been steeped in such desperate circumstances that they are, by and large, desensitized to haunting scenes that would take weeks for a privileged little girl like me to digest.

A man being dragged behind a car or beaten to a pulp by the police is just another incident, dwarfed by the countless other occurrences of screams, sirens, rape, assualts and murders seen and heard by this community.

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Katlegho is a young Langa resident in his mid twenties. He works hard, finding construction jobs wherever he can, and tries to stay out of trouble. However, staying out of trouble is easier said than done in a community that is riddled with violence. When testosterone, alcohol and pent-up frustration are combined in a small space, conflict is inevitable.

On the weekends, Katlegho enjoys spending time with his friends at the local Shebeen, drinking, listening to music and watching the soccer. This is a widely accepted way to relax after a week of long hours and gruelling labour. These weekends are mostly trouble free for Katlegho, but he admits that the drinking sometimes gets out of hand and results in fighting. Though the fights usually just consist of some punches being thrown, it is not unheard of for them to snowball into more serious altercations which involve stabbing and other grievous bodily harm. About a year ago a man died outside the Shebeen after being stabbed with a broken bottle, following a fight involving a bet.

Katlegho and some friends recently got involved in an altercation with another group of men over one of their girlfriends. They were all drunk, and he admits that the conflict got out of hand. A shot was fired. A patrolling police van stopped at the scene and broke up the brawl, arresting Katlegho and some of the other men who were not able to flee in time.

I notice that he clenches his fists and holds a look of contempt as he begins to unfold his ordeal with the local police.

“They beat me worse than the guys I was fighting. They had sticks and they hit me so hard I bled all over my face. My friend was already down, but they did not stop beating him. They kicked him in the stomach and in the head. He was bleeding from the ears. The officer put his shoe on my head and told me to stay down, then he pushed my head down hard until it was very sore. I asked him to stop but he didn’t”.

The police are given permission to go to harsh measures to secure and apprehend a criminal, but Katlegho insists that they were not provoking the police and that this treatment was absolutely unnecessary. He claims that, even though he and his friend listened to the police and stayed down, the police escalated the violence and caused extensive harm to them during and after arrest. I have my reservations as to how truthful he was when he said that they were completely cooperative.

It is likely that they were, in fact, resisting arrest. However, to kick a man in the head while he is unconscious and to continue the abuse is never acceptable under any circumstance.

The men were brought to the local police station to be charged, and were then put in the holding cell for the weekend. When I ask Katlegho about his experience in Jail, he shows disgust. He shakes his head. “They treated me like I was a dog”. Katlegho says that he was abused again when one of the police officers took him into the cell and slammed his head hard against one of the walls, repeatedly. No one in the office stopped the officer, and Katlegho was afraid for his life. Before he was discharged, he showed an officer that the handcuffs had created a wound on his wrists, and the officer squeezed his wounds, causing excruciating pain.

Katlegho’s experience is not even the tip of the iceberg, as he explains that he was one of the lucky ones. He knows people who have gone through far worse with the police. It is known in his circles that some men have been tortured upon arrest.

It is apparently common practice for victims to be stripped naked and humiliated by officers, who then pour buckets of cold water on them and leave them naked in a cold room overnight. Others have claimed to have been burned with lighters and cigarettes, and to have been handcuffed in unnatural and painful positions for long periods of time. Some have claimed that they were tortured for hours while being questioned, with tazers and whips.

This talk of torture is a blatant throwback to old apartheid practice, which involved victims being beaten, burned and whipped, often resulting in death. One of the strongest links that recent torture allegations have with apartheid is the act of victims being made to sit with their hands and legs contorted for hours, until their muscles are strained. We are also seeing many reports of whip wounds, which seems to have evolved from the dreaded sjambok. It seems that this culture of gratuitous police violence and torture did not leave with apartheid.

It is becoming a massive problem for our country and, along with the Protection of Information Act, it seems that our democracy is in real trouble.

Cases of violence from our police have tripled in the past decade and, having seen the Marikana Massacre and the deaths of taxi-driver Joseph Macie and protester Andries Tatane last year, it’s clear that police brutality is systemic and widespread.

Amnesty International says that our police force is blatantly disregarding basic human rights, and 35% of our population have admitted to being afraid of our own protectors. Victims from all over the country are accusing the police of torture, unnecessary abuse, public humiliation and even rape. 2014 has already seen a new scandal, as footage was recently released of a Cape Town man being publically stripped naked by police, tied to a car and repeatedly kicked in the groin.

Brutality statistics have risen considerably since 2009, when Minister of Safety and Security Nathi Mthethwa launched his plan to militarize the police force in order to gain the waning respect of the nation and intensify the war on crime. There is a growing belief that this draconian strategy is teaching officers to be violent and ruthless towards criminals, giving them the sense that they have carte blanche to enter into situations with a shoot-to-kill mindset.

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Upon initially calling Langa’s police station to request an interview, I was met with hostility. The person at the other end of the phone informed me that they are not allowed to talk about their training and that I must first get permission from some fabricated bureaucrat before I can sit down and speak with any police officer. He gave me a name and a number; both of which turned out to be non-existent. I called the station again some days later and it became clear that I had been purposefully misled.

I also did some research and concluded that there is absolutely no protocol regarding permission to simply sit with a police officer and ask some questions. I have a theory as to why I was met with such a puzzling and misleading response from the Langa office. Recently, the media have been unfalteringly harsh towards certain police stations around the informal settlements in Cape Town, due to their alleged brutality towards service delivery protestors.

It may well be that constables and officers are informally encouraged not to speak to media personnel, or that they are personally hesitant to do so in fear of jeopardising their job. Either way, the level of defensiveness that was shown by that constable indicates that there is a deeper issue he was trying to avoid, and that I am not the only writer seeking answers.

I approached a young officer a week later when visiting Patience. He was willing to speak about his training. Though it was clear that he was only going to give responses in favour of the police force, I was given enough information to be able to read between the lines and pick out faults that might pertain to the flawed new training system.

The officer told me that his training was rigorous but very effective. It involved drill-like exercises which would knock them down and build them up again. Physically and emotionally challenging. They were taught about our growing crime problem and how South Africa is riddled with murder, rape and assault. They are taught to consider themselves soldiers in the war on crime.

Immediately, his response confirmed the notion that the new training system is militarised; where officers are taught to fight criminals using excessive force, because they are the enemy.

It seems that new officers are trained extensively in firearms and arrest protocol. However, crowd control and human rights take a backseat. They are barely taught how to defend themselves in intimidating crowd situations. He says that, if you want to learn about crowd control, you must do a separate course. As with human rights, he claims that there are separate courses on law, but that it is not mandatory. He does know that he has the right to use excessive force if necessary to defend himself or apprehend a criminal. Unfortunately, he concedes that he does not remember what content covered the rights of the criminals, or what treatment is or is not allowed.

I asked him why he thinks our country has experienced such a surge in police brutality lately. He said that he does not think it is the training that has caused it. He believes it is because there is a small percentage of bad individuals who give the rest of the force a bad reputation.

“When they train us, they teach us how to be polite and respectful to the community. They tell us that only when the violence increases, we are allowed to use force.”

I then asked him why, if the bad officers are taught this, there are still so many cases of officers acting more harsh than necessary.

“It is because they are told that they must do what they need to do and decide how to act in the moment, but when the moment comes, sometimes you don’t think straight. Maybe they take it personally, or they are too pumped up.” Maybe it is because they are afraid, and when fear, adrenaline and authority are combined, it makes for dangerous mistakes.

I do believe what the officer told me. It is not our police’s training that is prompting these ‘bad apples’ to make terrible rash decisions which result in brutality. It is drilled into them that they must only use what force is necessary to overcome the criminal. However, the problem lies in the lack of training in this regard.

What force is too much, and what force is ‘just enough’?

That decision is left with the officers who cannot make clear decisions in the moment if they are not trained adequately in human rights or crowd control. The crux of our police brutality does not seem to lie in their training, as I initially hypothesised, but rather in their lack thereof in crucial areas that allow for good decisions under pressure.

Though they are well-prepared in firearms, and though it is greatly emphasised that they must not use excessive force, they are not taught how to keep a clear head in intimidating situations, and it is not made clear what force is and is not appropriate.

This deduction of mine holds water when applied to the bulk of recent police brutality reports, which circle around service delivery protests in which officers are ill-prepared for intimidating crowds and thus not able to make appropriate decisions. This said, obviously the buck stops at the individual and not at the flawed training system. It is the decision of individuals which result in excessive violence.

However, such individuals would be far better off coming from a system which both prevents and addresses police brutality in an effective manner. If it is made clear what force is and is not appropriate, there can no longer be the excuse of these ‘bad apples’ being improperly trained, and accountability can fall solely on them.

Speaking with a vulnerable resident of Langa, a criminal who experienced brutality and a local police officer, I learned a few things about the context and source of police brutality.

We live in a country that sees extreme violence every day. It is a problem which is intensifying relentlessly, and which the police force is trying its utmost to control. In the townships, where the bulk of our violent crimes are concentrated, people are rendered both desensitised and afraid for their lives. It is this tragic combination which instils fear and anger in our police officers, and which normalises their violent behavior towards criminals.

It seems here in Langa, that violence feeds into itself and causes more violence; spreading like a cancer.

The bulk of our police force have good intentions, but are ill-prepared for their jobs and this, combined with deep-seated anger and terror, is what seems to be driving levels of police brutality through the roof.