REALITY in our society is that which appears on prime-time TV. The outrage that has followed the beating and killing of Ficksburg activist Andries Tatane is a reassuring reminder that human values are deeply rooted here. But, as justifiable as the anger is, much of it seems based on a misapprehension - that the sort of police action that killed Tatane is new. Actually, all that is new is that the police were unwise enough to attack him in front of cameras, which beamed their acts into living rooms around the country.

According to the Independent Complaints Directorate, 1769 people died at the hands of police last year alone. And, as this column has pointed out, police have been accused of using violence against people challenging political authority at least since 2004.

That many citizens do not know this is not their fault - people cannot know what they are not told. But the horror that has greeted the Tatane killing does underline a point that has also been made here: that our media are not telling us how democracy - or the lack of it - is lived by grassroots South Africans. Some journalists defend this failure to tell an important part of our society's story by insisting that viewers, listeners and readers are not interested in what happens to people at the grassroots. The response to Tatane's killing shows that people are very interested and that it is high time that citizens are told what they want to know.

The story of which Tatane's killing is part also needs to be placed in context - precisely because it is not a freak incident, we need to understand why horrors such as these still happen. Two aspects are particularly important.

The first is that, ironically, those who complain most about democracy here are those who enjoy most of its benefits - the freedoms the suburbs enjoy are not available to people in the townships, villages and countryside. In the areas where most of the poor live, local power-holders - such as party bosses or municipal councillors - do not like being challenged by citizens demanding a say in how their neighbourhoods are governed. And often they enjoy links with the police, which ensure that life can be made very difficult for those who stand up to them. Social movements that try to mobilise people to speak out at the grassroots level repeatedly experience this. National leaders do not tell local leaders to act in this way, but nor do they do much to stop them.

We do not know whether Tatane was, as his family claims, deliberately targeted because he was too vocal in his efforts to hold local power-holders to account. We do know that, if he were, he would not be the only person in the townships to face violence because they insisted on exercising their right to hold power to account.

We cannot be proud of democracy here until everyone enjoys the same right to speak. Outrage at Tatane's death should make us demand to know that people in the townships and shack settlements and villages have the same rights as we do.

The second aspect is that people at the grassroots do not experience policing in the same way as people in the suburbs. For suburbanites, the problem is that police do not do enough - it is assumed that, if they did more, they would protect lives and properties. For people at the grassroots it is often that they do too much, because they are seen not as protectors but as predators.

One of the ironies of the reaction to Tatane's killing is that more than a few who have denounced the police action have been equally vocal in denouncing the constitution for caring more about perpetrators than victims. It is this view - that forcing the police to respect rights only strengthens the hands of criminals - that has prompted the government's security cluster to claim greater powers for police at the expense of the rights of citizens.

Tatane's death reminds us of what became clear almost as soon as the security chiefs gave police greater freedom from legal constraints - that the less we subject the police to law and scrutiny, the more they will prey not on criminals but on us. Many of us saw on our television screens what happened when we allowed police to do what they wanted rather than what the law demanded. Laws safeguarding our rights are not there to protect criminals - they are there to protect us. And heated government denials do not hide the reality that the more latitude we give police, the more we allow them to do what they did to Tatane. If his killing persuades most citizens to defend controls over the police rather than complain about them, new tragedies may be prevented.

These realities obviously indict the government - but not only it. As long as our mainstream debate remains blind to realities on the ground, and as long as some among us continue to see constitutional protections as a threat rather than a protection for all, more outrages remain an ever-present possibility.

. Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.