By Aarti Bhana
It’s been a particularly heavy few weeks after Black Lives Matter protests in America spread across the globe – this too in the middle of a global pandemic. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by police in the streets of Minneapolis in the United States on May 25.
A video circulating on social media shows a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, while he gasped ‘I can’t breathe’ before he died. The phrase has now become the rallying cry for protestors since the incident – and not just in the US. People the world over are not just angry over George Floyd’s killing ONLY! The world is angry over how American Police have historically treated African Americans – without dignity and with force.
Floyd is one among many African American men who was killed by the police. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts in the United States, according to 2019 data compiled by the National Academy of Sciences in the US. The deeper you go into the numbers, the scarier it looks. In a feature titled The Counted, the Guardian kept track of the number of people killed by police action in the United States over 2 years.
Watch our video here
In 2015 over 7 per 1 million, African Americans died at the hands of police, which is more than double the number for White Americans. In 2016, 6 per 1 million African Americans were killed by the police.
Check out the database here.
Policemen and law enforcement officers in America have historically used their power and authority to control the movement of black people. Before the Civil War, slave patrols were tasked with tracking runaway slaves throughout the United States. When slavery ended, black people were still detained and punished for crimes that would have been excused if a white person had done it. Policing in the US is associated with force by a system aimed at maintaining a social hierarchy based on the belief in the racial superiority of whites. In a word: racism or racial profiling.
So, that’s part of why people in the US are fighting; to reclaim their space and dignity in society. To be treated as equals and to end the scourge of police force on black bodies. It’s a long fight, a tough fight and it deserves to be heard.
People back home have also joined in solidarity protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, albeit at a smaller scale. Supporters gathered outside the gates of Parliament holding up placards and reciting poetry, calling for justice for the black lives lost. But it was not just for Floyd. It was also for the scores of particularly black men, who were killed by the police back home.
President Cyril Ramaphosa noted in a briefing to journalists that a total of 11, yes ELEVEN men were killed by police forces and over 230 000 people have been arrested for minor infringements during lockdown alone.
Daily Maverick notes that South Africa has arrested more people than any other country during the lockdown.
The conversation about police brutality in South Africa was recently brought to light after the killing of Collins Khosa. He was brutally killed by members of the South African National Defense Force on 10 April at his home in Alexandra, for having half a glass of beer, in his home.
If you are familiar with South Africa’s lockdown regulations, then you know that drinking in your home is allowed. Then why was Collins Khosa, Adane Emmanuel, Petrus Miggels, Sibusiso Amos and many others killed?
We break it down for you in three points:
- Lack of training
Soldiers ordinarily undergo training when they are taken into the army, but when the lockdown was announced, members of the SANDF were deployed hastily to support the South African Police Services. Johan Burger, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies wrote that because of limited planning and training for troops before they were deployed, it was only a matter of time before something would go wrong.
“The requirements for training, planning and preparation must have presented major organisational challenges for the joint forces. Given the nature and complexities of lockdown, the addition of new law (the regulations), and the need for joint forces to enforce the law fairly, it was a huge risk to deploy officials in this role without training,” according to the report dated April 20 2020.
“Some were bound to get it wrong,” he said.
Police Minister Bheki Cele, alongside the government and the President, tells the SANDF what to do. Cele had a pretty heavy-handed approach. He said law enforcers would not go easy on people breaking lockdown regulations.
His mafia-style approach has been associated to what the apartheid army called ‘skop, skiet en donner’, and his measures and actions have been heavily criticised by some, saying he is the one condoning police force and harsh action.
And leadership matters – the tone is set at the top and it impacts the way officers conduct themselves. Public Law expert Richard Calland told explain.co.za that Cele is conveying that it’s alright to be heavy-handed and to impose the law with force. Police officers will, therefore, take that as an indication that they can go in very hard.
We are not excusing crimes that required discipline. But we can argue for those who were unjustifiably killed or beaten.
Khadija Bawa, a researcher for the Social Justice Coalition, argues that South Africa, like the US, “is holding on to the hyper-masculine and white supremacist ideals that involve the policing of black people, not simply in line with laws and regulations, but also in ways that appease whiteness.”
- Lack of accountability
In the case of Collins Khosa, the court ruled that SANDF, SAPS and JMPD members who were present at the scene should be suspended and authorities need to complete the investigation into Khosa’s killing by June 4 2020.
The court also ruled that authorities need to issue and widely share a code of conduct for the SANDF and police to guide lockdown operations. The Judge declared that the SANDF must publish their commitment to upholding the right to life, dignity and the right not to be subjected to torture and unusual punishment.
That’s right, in 2020 the court has to tell the guys in uniform how to do their jobs, respectfully.
The SANDF conducted an investigation into Khosa’s case and alas, cleared the soldiers involved in Khosa’s killing. A big defeat for justice. The report claims that the post-mortem presented by a pathologist contradicts the injuries on Khosa’s body and that it was Khosa and his brother who provoked the two female soldiers, who then called for backup. BUT, these were accounts given by the soldiers, not witnesses to the crime.
The case is still under investigation and of course, the family is not happy with the findings. Some say the establishment is trying to defend itself from proper accountability and on the face of it, justice is not being done here.
Cele himself downplayed the acts of police violence and misconduct – instead of defending the rights of human beings he said, “if someone says I stole a chicken, it’s only an allegation”. But in this case, it is FACT!
And it’s not just in lockdown. In 2017/2018, Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reported 201 deaths in police custody and 436 deaths that were a result of police action.
So, why then are we not making a bigger noise in South Africa – why have we looked away from our own and have started resonating more with the US’s treatment of black bodies.
In South Africa, the 34 families of Marikana victims have still not received justice or compensation from the government. It’s been seven years since that horrifying, unjustifiable incident.
Students who were on the frontlines of the #FeesMustFall movement, who were shot, arrested and harassed on campus are now sitting with criminal records, and most of South Africa was silent then?
Just last week, striking miners who were demanding their UIF payments were attacked by the police with rubber bullets and tear gas.
South Africa has a complex history, rooted in the mistreatment of black people and people of colour. White privilege is imminent. Systematic racism is pervasive. We see it in our work places and in our homes. We’re far from equality and we’re yet to overcome poverty.
Dear South Africa, we’re not saying, don’t fight! Fight all you want in the name of justice, and equality. Use your voice, both online and offline, but don’t forget your brothers and sisters at home. They need your voice too! They need it every day.
We have included links below on how you can help the Black Lives Matter Movement and how to report cases of police misconduct in South Africa.