"POLICE state" is one of those ambiguous pejoratives with no set definition. It can be stretched to mean anything. In 2010, the Group of 20 summit was held in Toronto, Canada — one of the world’s most docile nations. Yet by the end of it, 20,000 people were caught up in protests, with thousands arrested for vandalism and public disorder. Some of the protests were sparked by the perceived overhanded police reaction to earlier protests.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to find people who would call Canada a police state. Does the heavy police reaction to public protests in Kiev, Ukraine, make the label fit that country? This is more comfortable territory: President Viktor Yanukovych and his government are locked in a bitter dispute over the future of the country with opposition figures and swathes of the public, who have taken over Independence Square in Kiev. The latest clashes came after the government enacted legislation to ban public protests.

Those protests are large and loud and involve a significant number of the population. The international media are all over that story.

South Africa is a brutal police state. Far from the quiet suburbs, the supposed protectors and servants of the people are waging a low-key war against political dissent. Public service delivery protests are essentially political, and the police are doing their damndest to quash them.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a basic problem with trying to legislate or control protest. It doesn’t make sense. People are always going to do what they feel is necessary to attract attention to their cause. If such actions become vandalism or worse, it’s a sign of a broken political system, not of widespread public criminality. At one stage it was illegal for people to gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after dark, yet they did so anyway. The idea that we in South Africa can have rules about how people should rage against the system is beyond laughable.

Still, the police have a job to do. Nobody expects them to stand by idly if lives are being endangered, and this counts even more when they are personally threatened in a situation. But these regulations have clearly become an excuse to target "troublesome" protesters. This is not just true for protests in Marikana or Mothutlung, in the North West.

As recently as New Year’s Day, the informal shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo reported that police and security guards in Cato Manor, Durban, tried to stop an occupation (following a series of evictions that stretched back for years) using rubber bullets and tear gas. The organisation routinely complains its leaders and organisers are targeted for special attention.

The police are now embroiled in another scandal too. The North West community of Mothutlung, not far from Marikana, has been protesting because of a lack of water. Four people have died already, and according to people interviewed by City Press, some of them were killed by police officers linked to the Marikana killings.

"City Press has learnt that residents have reported one officer? — who is well known in Mothutlung as one of ‘the Marikana policemen’ — to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Residents claim that the officer, whose name is known to City Press, shot and killed a 62-year-old freelance photographer ‘in cold blood’," the newspaper said.

I needn’t mention past cases of people who died brutally in protests.

For the past two weeks or so, the lawyers at the Marikana commission of inquiry have been cross-examining Brig Adriaan Calitz, who in August 2012 gave the order to fire on advancing striking miners at the koppie where they had gathered. Video evidence showed him giving "shoot at the target" and "advance and engage" orders, which, according to advocate Dali Mpofu, was an order for live ammunition to be used.

Mpofu said he would recommend to the commission that charges of murder be brought against Brig Calitz and others for the people killed in the first phase (the killings at the "big koppie") of the skirmish. The worst of the killings happened at the "small koppie", where there is evidence that miners were fleeing, hiding or surrendering.

It isn’t just that the police seem to enjoy impunity when crushing public dissent. The website of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate is a catalogue of shocking crimes committed by the police. In October last year, two police officers were arrested in Pretoria for committing assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm against a man held in police cells. Four Durban constables appeared in court in January for corruption, and a Johannesburg police officer was in court facing multiple charges of rape, kidnapping and robbery. I’ve only cherry-picked a few examples.

This is the so-called South African police "service". It’s happening right now, and since nothing has changed, it is likely to continue happening. This is the country in which we live.

Human Rights Watch has issued a warning to the police. Southern Africa director Tiseke Kasambala recently said: "There is an increasingly violent reaction to peaceful protests in South Africa. It seems that every time there are protests in South Africa, the police are heavy-handed and use excessive force.

"We want to see President (Jacob) Zuma and his government make clear that the police must abide by international standards, and use proportionate force."