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Fear and policing in the time of Covid-19

3 Jul 2020 - 13:15

This article was originally published on News24 on 3 April 2020.

Since the lockdown was declared a week ago it feels like South Africans are living in a pseudo police state. Our freedom of movement has been severely curtailed. Schools, universities and numerous businesses have closed. Thousands of police, soldiers and private security personnel have been deployed to enforce mass home confinement throughout the country.

Those allegedly not complying with the Covid-19 emergency regulations have often been met with a stern, and, at times, violent responses from the state. Reports and video footage have been widely circulated on social media and news sites of security personnel shoving, slapping, humiliating, punching, kicking, sjambokking and even shooting supposed delinquents. Some people have died due to the (alleged) actions of these government officials.

It now appears that fear of South Africa’s security forces among ordinary South Africans is at its highest level since 1994. In the absence of a vaccine, evidence from a variety of public health studies have shown that in order to limit the spread of a pandemic, populations need to practice self-isolation and social distancing to limit and prevent the transmission of such lethal pathogens.

However, in the dark days of Covid-19, the tragedies in China, Italy, Spain and New York have underscored the imperative for decisive action by government when large numbers of people do not social distance or self-isolate.

There is a menu of compliance strategies and tactics from which to choose, and indeed there are no easy choices. The South African government has opted for a range of strict and arguably repressive practices to be employed by the security forces. Why were such choices made, especially when most other constitutional democracies have not (yet) adopted such a heavy-handed response?

Part of the answer is linked to a deep-seated culture of punitiveness amongst the South African elite in terms of how ordinary South Africans (especially the poor) should be governed, combined with the militarisation of social control, particularly policing.

Punitiveness is based on the notion that individuals are likely to misbehave unless robust controls and punishments that target such waywardness are regularly enforced and widely communicated. This is often reinforced by popular beliefs that physical violence is an acceptable means to discipline and punish inappropriate behaviour and non-compliance. For governments in highly unequal societies, such as South Africa, punitiveness has become a common strategy to maintain political and social order, and has been in existence since the colonial era.

Nonetheless, it has been particularly prevalent in relation to the current crime epidemic in South Africa. That is, there is a commonly held view that alleged criminals should be severely punished, with many calling for the return of the death penalty.

This punitiveness has been clearly evident in how some senior government officials have responded to perceived transgressions of the lockdown regulations, with non-compliant South Africans being described as "enemies" that have deserved to be disciplined by police or soldiers.

In basic terms, police militarisation is a process in which the police and other security agencies adopt military-oriented approaches, practices and technology to do their jobs. This often results in police leadership and front line police personnel viewing aggressive tactics as being appropriate to address a variety of very different problems. Police militarisation is often synonymous with the excessive use of force by the police.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) are a militarised institution, with police militarisation being intensified since 2010 when the Minister of Police at the time announced that the SAPS would be referred to as the "Force", and reintroduced military ranks, insignias and salutes to "instil a sense of discipline", as well as "inspire public confidence and improve police morale".

The SAPS have also been fighting a "war on crime" for years, in which high crime areas have targeted for crackdown and lockdown operations. Furthermore, the police have been encouraged by cabinet ministers and the senior SAPS leadership to "show no mercy" towards dangerous criminals.

Police militarisation and punitiveness has been clearly evident in the SAPS' recent enforcement of compliance with the Covid-19 lockdown regulations (along with the SANDF and the Metro Police), not only with respect to the numerous cases involving alleged brutality, but also in the manner in which the police operations have been planned and executed.

That is, the operations appear to be a crudely customised version of how the SAPS and the SANDF have been aggressively fighting criminal gangs in Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Metropole in recent times. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by the fact that in many poor neighbourhoods in South Africa, lockdown rules are unrealistic if not impossible to enforce.

In addition, in such areas trust in the police is low and the men and women in blue generally do not typically want to patrol such areas, as they are usually dangerous, difficult to navigate, and some residents are disrespectful and belligerent towards the police. Stress and frustration levels among the front line security personnel is probably excessively high at the moment given that they are acutely aware that they are at risk of contracting the virus, which in turn may lead to the use of excessive force.

The President and various cabinet ministers have called on the security forces to respect human rights and not to use excessive force. However, a major area of concern is that the oversight bodies that were created in the 1990s in an effort to protect South Africans from abuses by the security forces are overwhelmed, understaffed or are not operating due to the lockdown.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate is reportedly struggling to cope with the volume of complaints against the police. The Military Ombudsman is conspicuously absent. The Parliament Portfolio Committee on Police is not meeting as Parliament has closed. Clearly, the government needs to urgently address these oversight and monitoring deficiencies, otherwise abuses by security force members are likely to continue under lockdown.

- Dr Guy Lamb is the Director of the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town.