Author: Karabo Ledwaba

Power as a factor

Michel Foucault’s theory on power (particularly bio power), population control and surveillance is used in this chapter to unpack the SAPS behaviour in post-apartheid South Africa. I will be using Foucault’s example of the panopticon to discuss the issue of surveillance and racial profiling in the 21st century.  Both the ‘fees must fall’ protest and the Marikana massacre are used in this chapter as an example of the SAPS militaristic response to poor black civil society movements in South Africa; it will be argued that the SAPS does not protect the interests of poor black civilians but that of the rich elite and that this illustrates the power differences between the SAPS/Elite’s and poor black civilians.

Bio-power and surveillance

Foucault (1977) defines his theory of bio-power in his lecture series called ‘Security, territory, population’ as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power” (Foucault, 1977: 16). He argues that in order to prevent crime; governments in the post 18th century used techniques such as supervision, checks, inspections and other types of control in order to prevent criminal activities from occurring. This usually leads to the identification of a possible criminal before the crime can actually take place; it is interesting that he leads to this conclusion when he was lecturing in the 1970’s because this is the very issue that activists in the U.S are fighting against in contemporary times.

Movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ argue that African Americans are stereotyped as criminals by the U.S police force because they are black. It can be argued that this is largely due to structural racism (Warren, 2015), it is important to differentiate between structural/institutional racism with individual racism; this is because to a certain extent institutional racism can be more powerful than individual racism. Power is the main theme of this chapter; therefore this differentiation needs to be discussed. Ultimately institutional racism has a broader scope and can affect larger parts of the population (Calgary Anti-Racism Education, 2015). Foucault (1977) states that true power in society lies in the field of security; by controlling all aspects of society through the reasoning of security, this is then ensured through the power of institutional racism.

However we can also question if this structural racism occurs in the South African Police Service (SAPS). I would like to investigate whether the prejudice against black civilians in the apartheid era is still thriving twenty-one years after the end of apartheid as is believed in the U.S., as mentioned above there has been violence against black civilians in post-apartheid times but is this a daily problem or is it limited to the violent acts that have been highlighted by the media? Foucault (1977) argues that security is not only historically found in the law but in other areas such as healthcare, for example having restrictions on the movement of people because of disease outbreaks. Therefore he claims that true power in society lies in the field of security; by controlling all aspects of society through the rationale of security.

Marikana and fees must fall: SAPS response

The Marikana massacre that occurred in 2012 was argued to have been the highest amount of black civilian deaths by the police since the end of the apartheid era. The Marikana strike arose when the miners at Lonmin demanded a living wage of R12 500 per month; according to the miners they were attacked by police forces for simply occupying a koppie near their workplace and demanding to have a meeting with their employer (Alexander et al, 2012).  A mineworker’s account of the violent events that occurred: “There was a white policeman who said, ‘fire’. It became chaos, people were stamped by the Hippo, water and teargas was used… they lied about the rubber bullet, they did not use them” (Alexander et al, 2012: 134). Some mineworkers felt that the massacre reminded them of police violence in the apartheid era, particularly because they tried to escape the police but where attacked regardless of that fact; “I would hear about massacres you see. I usually heard of that from history, but on that day it came back, so that I can see it” (Alexander et al, 2012: 122).

The police defended their use of violence on three grounds: 1) that action needed to be taken against an illegal gathering that was deemed as a threat to public safety, 2) Riah Phiyega claimed in a press conference that the intention of the police was to disperse the striking group into smaller groups that would be more manageable and 3) the police were acting in self-defence.

However all three of these reasons can be argued against; firstly the South African constitution protects the rights of persons to strike and to assemble together even though employers may fire the strikers under certain circumstances. The Assembly of persons is allowed if the persons involved are unarmed, traditional ‘weapons’ are not necessarily used for violence but for peace such as in traditional weddings and self-protection. The strike was mainly occurring on a small mountain that was out of the public’s way and therefore would have not been harmful to civilians, dispersal is legal but this could have been done with rubber bullets to prevent fatalities (Alexander et al, 2012: 139).

Ultimately the Marikana massacre has shown that the structure of the apartheid economy has remained intact, with the SAPS still protecting the interests of the elite.  One interviewee described how she viewed the police at the strike: “it seemed as though the police did not belong to the government, but that they belonged to the company” (Alexander et al, 2012: 97). The results of the Farlam Commission may be illustrative of the protection the SAPS has, the findings of the Commission found that the police had a lack of preparation, this was negligence but as of yet there has been no further inquiry into this (The Presidency, 2015). However, it seems that when police are negligent on their own terms such as with the killing of Mido Macia; justice is achieved (Rahlaga, 2015). Therefore it can be said that perhaps police brutality in some instances is allowed if it serves the elite. In 2013 it was found that 27 000 police officers were directors in private companies, and it was not clear whether all of these business interests had been disclosed or not. “In the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) report, it has been revealed that 99 companies allegedly linked to SAPS employees have done business with SAPS amounting to R21 million” (Besent, 2013).

On the 14th of October 2015, the University of the Witwatersrand students (mostly poor black students) staged a protest against a 10.5% fee increase; by the 19th of October 2015 this had spread to other Universities such as the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and Stellenbosch University (Phaladi, 2015). The SAPS response to these protests has been alarming in some universities, particularly at the University of Cape Town where it has been alleged that students have been harmed by the police and subsequently arrested for protesting, on the night of the 19th of October 2015 police fired stun grenades and teargas at students of the University of Cape Town (M&G Online reporter, 2015). On the 21st of October the student protest spread to Parliament where stun grenades where used against the protestors after they managed to storm the gates of Parliament (Eye Witness News, 2015). Some white students at the University of Cape Town created a human shield between the police officers and black protestors because of the fear that the police would shoot at black students. This shows that there is a largely shared consciousness in South Africa that black people are ultimately more vulnerable to police violence than white people and that black bodies are less valuable, eye witnesses accounted that the police retreated once the white students intervened (Falkof, 2015). The response that the SAPS showed leads us to question once again what interests the SAPS is serving, particularly because the protests have  argued to be peaceful from the protestor’s side. It is important to note that the ‘fees must fall’ phenomenon is a relatively new one and thus there is no secondary literature that I can use  at this time apart from media articles that the protestors have accused of being biased in their reporting, this concern over the media has been discussed on social media such as twitter.

The police response to the student protests has been compared to that of the 1976 student uprisings where students protested for quality education, this shows that black university students do in fact see that there are still similarities between the modern SAPS and the apartheid SAP. However it does have to be acknowledged that the SAPS today have used limited violence in its attempts to stop the protests (eNCA, 2015). However when we look at both the modern and historical police forces in South Africa have, they have both been used as a tool to deny black students access to quality education that white students have continued to enjoy.
White owned institutions such as the University of Cape Town are able to use the Justice system and police services to protect their own interests. For example, the University was granted an interdict that declared if anyone disrupted or interfered with the normal activities of the University then they would be in violation of the interdict, therefore the SAPS was used to ensure that compliance from students would occur through arrest and the use of force (Davis, 2015). The main people who suffered the most from this interdict were poor black students who needed the protests to continue in order to bring awareness to the financial plight caused by the University fees.

Therefore it is legitimate to be concerned about the SAPS and the interests it serves in situations such as the Marikana strikes and the university protests, because the vulnerable may not be protected, they are threatened with state violence and arrest. John made a comment on this: “if you are politically connected or know someone in the higher ranking offices then you are safe”

[Then] Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in an email to the SAPS labelled the Marikana Miners as ‘criminals’ and that ‘concomitant action’ needed to take place; this is political interference taking place within the SAPS, clearly there was some form of influence from both big business and political elites (Marinovich and Nicolson, 2013). However Ramaphosa did defend his involvement by claiming that he sent the emails because he was concerned with the loss of life that that had already occurred, and that he was taken out of context (SABC, 2014).

The re-militarisation of the SAPS

The re-militarisation of the SAPS in 2010 is a cause for concern, the language that has been used by Nathi Mthethwa is an example of this problem: “For any force to discharge its task effectively there needs to be a commander because wars are led by commanders” (Grobler, 2013: 43). This was done to show the power of the SAPS in order to lower crime statistics; however the concern is who is at the receiving end of this power, and who is this war against? In 2013 the National Police Chief Riah Phiyega acknowledged at the Farlam Commission that the re-militarisation of the SAPS was not successful because it decreased community trust in the police, and did not decrease crime as was intended. Therefore Phiyega claimed that a de-militarisation of the SAPS would be part of the National Development Plan (NDP), however she did not make it clear how exactly this would occur over the years in order to ensure that de-militarisation would take place (Sapa, 2013). However in mid-October 2015, Phiyega was suspended by President Jacob Zuma at the recommendation of the board of inquiry for misconduct and an inability to execute official duties. This is not the first time that a national Police Commissioner has been suspended in democratic South Africa (Hunter, 2015), Bheki Cele her predecessor was also suspended  for unlawful leases signed for police office space worth R1.7 billion (Lekota, 2011). Jackie Selebi who was the national police commissioner during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency was suspended by then President Thabo Mbeki for his involvement in organized crime with convicted drug smuggler Glenn Agliotti (South African History Online, 2015).

It has been said that a ‘rebranding’ of the SAPS will be needed in order to send out the message that it has been de-militarised , therefore the SAPS post-Marikana have been granted a R14 million budget for the rebranding of the police force. However some are skeptical that this will change the image of the SAPS in the eyes of civilians, this skepticism stems from the manner in which the budget is set up. The capital is to be used to improve communication and the marketing of the SAPS. However the problems of the police service are deeper than this, the main problems are service delivery and internal problems as well as conflicts; if these issues are not improved then the rebranding will not be as effective as it could be (Leshilo, 2015). “Every institution of government…needs to have a good reputation, but that reputation can only be built through delivery on its mandate” (Leshilo, 2015).  However the continued clashes that occur between the SAPS and poor black civilians makes it difficult to conclude that a re-branding of the SAPS will be successful, and this will ultimately mean that a strong relationship between black civil society and the SAPS will be elusive.

*This is an edited extract from a study titled The relationship between the SAPS and poor black civilians in post apartheid SA by Karabo Ledwaba [Wits University 2015].

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