POLITICAL pressure on the government is ratcheting up in the wake of the Marikana police killings, and rightly so. Thirty-four deaths at the hands of police firing live rounds into a crowd constitutes a crisis in any democracy. Hard questions should be asked, and it is incumbent on the police ministry in particular to ensure that proper internal investigations are conducted and honest answers provided.
Still, the knee-jerk call for Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s resignation is premature given that the Presidency has already revealed that a judicial inquiry is on the cards.
The pertinent issues raised by opposition parties during Tuesday’s special sitting of Parliament — such as the precise circumstances under which police were given live ammunition, and who gave the order to open fire — will undoubtedly be addressed by the inquiry.
If Mr Mthethwa is found to be responsible for any act or omission that gave rise to unnecessary deaths, there will be plenty of opportunity to call for his head then.
Meanwhile, if the inquiry is to do more than merely apportion blame, the terms of reference under which it operates should include considering whether the militarisation of the police on Mr Mthethwa’s watch was a contributing factor.
The government seems oblivious to this possibility — it wheeled out Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu to represent it in Tuesday’s robust debate, despite the fact that it was she, in a previous incarnation as Mr Mthethwa’s deputy in the then safety and security ministry, who sparked an outcry by urging police officers to "shoot to kill" when confronted by armed criminals.
There is a history to the increasingly aggressive stance adopted by the police since the downfall of the Mbeki presidency, a history South Africans owe it to themselves to review in an objective manner. If official statistics are to be believed, and in general we aver that they should, the trend in most violent crime categories has been downward since the government adopted a more robust approach to policing.
At the same time, deaths in police custody have increased, and anecdotal evidence abounds of police officers abusing their authority and even terrorising law-abiding citizens. The question has to be asked: if this is the price that must be paid for a reduction in violent crime, is it worthwhile?
It is hard to divorce the belligerent tone adopted by the police from the top down — former national police commissioner Bheki Cele even dressed like a cowboy — from either the decline in violent crime or the increase in the public’s fear of the police. The institution was quite deliberately changed from a "police service" to a "police force", along with the reversion to military-style ranks from the less threatening titles used in jurisdictions such as the UK and Canada.
There was a not-so-subtle message behind this: the gloves are off, ruthless crimes will be met with ruthless policing, police lives are worth more than those of alleged criminals, and the end justifies the means. This ties in with the militarisation of the "force" and a rise in aggressive rhetoric — these days we declare war on crime, rather than devise strategies to combat it.
It does not take an overactive imagination to extrapolate from this approach to policing a change in attitude among officers. Individual rights are frequently suspended in a state of war, after all. Might is right when you’re holding an automatic rifle and have been told to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.
South Africa’s policemen and -women operate under extremely stressful conditions, they frequently put their lives at risk and they deserve more public support. But creating an "us against the rest" mentality was a mistake that needs to be corrected before the culture of impunity that is taking hold in the "force" erodes the relationship of trust with the public completely.