The South African Police Service (SAPS), an executive branch of government that enforces the law, exercises its official public governmental power in terms of Acts of Parliament such as the Constitution of 1996, the Criminal Procedure Act and the Child Justice Act. In terms of section 205(3) of the Constitution of 1996, the objectives of the police service are to prevent crime, to maintain public order, to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic, and to uphold and enforce the law. Only acts performed within the bounds conferred by the Acts of Parliament and the Constitution are deemed lawful. Legislation therefore demands punishment for any police official who exercises his official public power unreasonably and therefore acts unlawfully.
In 2012, however, ordinary South Africans live in perpetual fear of SAPS. My body goes cold when a police van drives or a police man walks past me, even though I have done nothing illegal because I am well aware of the horrors that I will face if I end up in a police cell. In the wake of service delivery protests that resulted in the death of innocent civilians such as Ficksburg’s Andries Tatane and the senseless torture and ultimate killing of persons in police custody, SAPS has earned itself a violent reputation. This is further exacerbated by the inability of the police force to discipline its members who are the perpetrators of these unlawful acts. This is odd because police officials are only permitted to use force in appropriate circumstances, for example if a suspect resists arrest or a protest is violent. However, the use of force must be reasonable. The South African public is at the mercy of the police because this force is exercised unreasonably.
The South African media has gone even further and coined a term for these violent and unlawful acts: police brutality. The irony in this term is striking. The words police and brutality should not go together, let alone used in the same sentence. Protecting and securing inhabitants does not include subjecting individuals to torture. The South African justice system does not promote violence against detainees because it is a punishable offence for which there is a sentence. Subjecting individuals to torture is a violation of their constitutional rights. Not every arrest and detention of a suspect results in a suspect’s death. Many suspects are successfully prosecuted in a court of law for the crimes they have committed but the sudden rise in police brutality when a suspect is arrested and detained is an alarming cause of concern. The individuals who have been tasked with protecting citizens and upholding and enforcing the law are the perpetrators of crimes against innocent civilians.
In conclusion, I am not by any means advocating the entire SAPS as a crime fighting unit filled with common thugs. However, there is a violent rot in the police service that needs to be dealt with promptly. More attention must be placed on the manner in which police officials discharge their duties. The police force must be at the forefront of protecting the rights of civilians and thus not infringing on them.
Thokwadi Seabela is a BCom Law Graduate and current LLB student at the University of Johannesburg.