United Front starts the trek towards police reform

Daily Maverick

By Greg Nicolson 18 MAR 2015 12:48

Stories of incompetent police, factionalism in the top levels of the South African Police Service and even of criminal cops, abound. The United Front has decided to take action, beginning on Wednesday with a demonstration outside the United States Consulate in Johannesburg because #BlackLivesMatter. Next, they’re going into local communities.


Members of the United Front, a collection of left-leaning organisations and other groups will gather at the Sandton Gautrain Station on Wednesday and march to the United States Consulate to protest against racial profiling and excessive use of force against African Americans by police in the US. It’s a matter that concerns many South Africans, the organisers said.

The march will be the first of over 40 events the groups plan to hold over the next two weeks in protest against the curtailing of democratic rights by the police in South Africa, including vigils at police stations in communities across the country. The country witnessed the Marikana Massacre in 2012 and numerous other acts of police brutality have occurred, particularly in response to protests, yet there hasn’t been a co-ordinated, mass demonstrations against the police in response.

“While in the dawn of democracy we assumed that it is within the capacity of the police to ‘serve and protect’, the experience of the last few years has taught us that police are not a neutral force,” reads a press statement from the United Front, Right2Know, Marikana Support Campaign and the African Diaspora Forum, which are all taking part in the demonstrations along with community groups. “Police violence may not be just an aberration or acts of a few ‘rogue cops’ but integral to the systemic role of the police in a class society. Police brutality is a symptom of a more systematic war on the poor.”

Citing numerous South African Police Service (SAPS) rights violations and use of excessive force in response to local protests, the organisations listed 10 demands. They want the police to respect the right to protest and freedom of assembly; the removal of the Special Task Force, National Intervention Unit and Tactical Response Team from policing public order matters; an investigation into the militarisation of the SAPS; an investigation into the failure to prosecute cases of police brutality; charges brought against officers who violate the law at protests and a return to community policing, among others.

With metalworkers union Numsa the driving force behind the United Front, the press conference was held at the union’s Johannesburg offices. After a meeting of its national working committee in January, the United Front announced plans to continue its campaign to raise ground level support ahead of its official launch in June. While expectations that Numsa would use the United Front to launch a political party have not yet come to pass, the movement has been challenging government and the African National Congress (ANC), announcing an alternative State of the Nation Address in February and marching to Parliament on the day of the budget announcement.

“The main focus of our actions is to reclaim our rights: the right to protest, the right to assemble and we have noticed that the police are being used to undermine this fundamental right to protect the ANC government, to protect the elite around these particular issues,” said United Front campaigns co-ordinator John Appolis on Tuesday. Many of the planned demonstrations will be at local police stations. Appolis explained that this was to engage officers directly so as to raise the issue of human rights, ensure community-driven policing, and establish a closer relationship between communities, civil society and the police on local issues to avoid violent responses to protests.

“What we see is an escalation of violent protests because of poor policing, poor management of protests, rather than something which is inherent or something which is about how protesters behave,” said Trevor Ngwane, from the Democratic Left Front, at the briefing. Ngwane went to see how a Thembelihle protest was going last week and got arrested. “I did nothing,” he said, claiming police arrested innocent bystanders for no reason. He spent five days in jail. “Clearly to me it’s just police methods.”

“We’ve seen at the centre of Marikana is that a demand for justice is a demand for accountability. Not one policeman has been prosecuted, no one from Lonmin or the government has been investigated in any serious manner,” said Rehad Desai from the Marikana Support Campaign, adding that there is a systematic attack on institutions established to uphold the law and democracy.

“What we have noticed over the last few years now is that internal fights within the ANC have directly impacted these institutions where factions in the ANC have been using these institutions to drive their own agenda,” Appolis continued when asked about the recent ructions in the Hawks and the Internal Police Investigation Directorare (Ipid).

Siphiwe Zwane, an activist from Lenasia, said,“As the police are harassing people in Lenasia what I have noticed is that police get a mandate from a political perspective rather than doing what they are employed for… It is clear that the police are ANC and they are not protecting community members; they are only focusing on protecting government officials… as communities are suffering from service delivery issues.”

Allegations against the police and the ANC for influencing and using the SAPS for their own means have long existed, which both the police and party deny, but meaningful reform of the system appears distant. As the United Front embarks on campaigns throughout the month, it will be an opportunity to measure the new movement’s support and influence.

Photo: South African police check the bodies of striking mineworkers shot dead at the Wonderkop informal settlement near Marikana platinum mine, Rustenburg, South Africa, 16 August 2012. EPA/STR