South Africa’s parliament and the politicisation of the police

The police were a symbol of the old, apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately they are becoming a symbol of the ‘new South Africa’ too.

Richard McLaverty
22 December 2014

History's reprise: the Marikana massacre. Flickr / Some rights reserved.

Anyone watching the events which unfolded in South Africa’s parliament in November would have seen history being made. And not only because of the record 166 notices of motions and 41 motions without notice.

More alarmingly, this was the first time since the apartheid prime minister Hendrick Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966 that police officers entered the National Assembly chamber. Reneiliwe Mashabela, a member of parliament (MP) belonging to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, had refused to withdraw her statement that the president and leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma, was “a thief and the greatest criminal in the world”. Police stormed in and forcibly removed Mashabela from the chamber. Other opposition MPs were hurt. Someone, somewhere—possibly under instruction—had stopped the live feed to the parliamentary channel, just as the police were entering.

The parliamentary speaker, Baleka Mbete—who is also chair of the ANC—had attempted to block the plan by opposition parties to filibuster the scheduled debate on an investigation into Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla. A report by the country’s watchdog, the public protector, found that the president had “unduly benefitted” from upgrades  to it, at the expense of South Africa’s taxpayers. While it’s still unclear who gave the instruction for the police to enter the chamber, their presence seems to have been carefully orchestrated.

Political pawns

The South African police are no strangers to political battles. Before 1994, in some aspects, they were used as political pawns. They were responsible for the internal security of the state in its relentless drive to suppress black liberation movements, stop violence and sabotage and suppress ‘Communism’. When the then president, F.W. de Klerk, announced the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation movements in February 1990, it had crucial implications for the police. In the transition to democracy and in the period immediately after, significant changes began to take place.

The most immediate aim was for a force to be built on the foundations of human rights. Despite the violent history with which the police were associated, the response to change was to many observers surprisingly positive. Whether as an act of introspection and self-preservation or genuine reconciliation, the police initially appeared to be heading in the right direction.

The police should always uphold the rule of law without fear or favour.

While the incoming ANC did have a military wing, it didn’t have anything that constituted a police force. Wary of those the organisation earlier regarded as the enemy, instead of promoting experienced police officers—individuals with clean records who were not members of the notorious apartheid units—it made political appointments to senior positions. Many appointees had little or no understanding of policing and lacked the institutional knowledge of what it took to lead such a complex organisation, especially one attempting to recover and break from the apartheid legacy. Recent events put that transformation into question.

For many South Africans, the clashes between police and striking miners at Marikana in August 2012, when 44 people died in a single day—34 at the hands of the police—were disturbingly reminiscent. So too was the killing of Andries Tatane, shot by police in front of the cameras during one of many protests over service delivery. Or, again, the case of the Mozambican national Mido Macia, who died of head injuries after being dragged along the street, handcuffed to the back of a police van. All these incidents betrayed similarities with the period of National Party rule. 

Crisis of confidence

Such concerns, and many others, have left the police facing a crisis of confidence and trust, as they did at the time of the transition. So why, despite the promise to reconcile, has there been a return to a remilitarised and authoritarian police force? The answer lies somewhere within South Africa’s ruling ANC.

In the past, political lines defined the role the police played and today, despite the official commitment to human rights, an authoritarian culture persists. Police officers are still facing a crisis of identity and they are still being used to pursue and achieve political ends.

The country’s last three national police commissioners have not come from within the ranks but rather have been deployed to pursue an agenda dictated by the ruling party. The previous two commissioners (one a former head of Interpol) were removed following allegations of corruption. The incumbent, Riah Phiyega, has been accused of failure to co-operate with the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre and lawyers for the commission have argued that it should recommend an inquiry into whether she is fit to hold office.

Sending armed riot police into parliament is a clear example of political interference. How much more political could it get when an opposition MP is removed for refusing to withdraw a comment about the president?

The repoliticisation of the police has meant day-to-day police work has suffered. Specialised units, such as the Detective Service and Crime Intelligence, have become increasingly dysfunctional. Meanwhile dedicated police officers, of whom there are many—overworked and underpaid as they are—continue to risk their lives with little acknowledgment or opportunity for promotion.

Complex challenges

After 20 years of democracy, the police still face complex challenges, including nepotism in the guise of redress and transformation. There has been movement but little fundamental change from apartheid policing.
The recent events in parliament paint a depressing picture of the country’s democracy, only ever as strong as its institutions. When these institutions—in this case both police and parliament—are undermined, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Police should never be brought into parliament, except under absolutely exceptional circumstances, and they should never be used to fight political battles. If they are, the lines are blurred between party and state and the separation of powers becomes devoid of meaning. The police should always uphold the rule of law without fear or favour.

The South African police are in desperate need of genuine leadership—leadership not dictated by, nor an extension of, the ruling party. Politicians may come and go but institutions are difficult to change and rebuild, as the last 20 years have shown. South Africans can only hope that the next 20 will be different.

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