JOHANNESBURG, 29 April 2011 (IRIN) - On 13 April millions of South Africans saw news footage showing a group of police beating an unarmed protester with batons in Meqheleng, a township outside Ficksburg in South Africa's Free State Province.
Andries Tatane, a community activist and father of two children, was then seen looking down at an apparent rubber bullet wound on his bare chest before collapsing to the ground. He died shortly afterwards.
The incident has sparked widespread public outrage and a national debate about the level of force being used by the South African Police Service (SAPS), particularly in the wake of another fatal shooting of an unarmed woman by an officer outside a Johannesburg police station on 26 April.
A spokesperson for National Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele told a local radio station that the cases should be treated as "isolated incidents", but many commentators point out that the use of lethal force by the police has risen dramatically in recent years.
Figures from the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), which is charged with investigating all deaths resulting from police action, show that 568 people were shot dead by the police in 2008/09, more than double the number just three years earlier, and the highest number since the ICD was established in 1997.
"The only thing that was an aberration [in Tatane's killing] was that it was captured on national television," said Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think-tank.
Lack of training
In the apartheid era police routinely used violence to quell protests, but with the transition to democracy in 1994, and the incorporation of various human rights in the constitution, police heavy handedness was discouraged.
Most demonstrations post-1994 were peaceful and many units specializing in public order policing were closed down, with a resultant loss of skills in dealing with protests, Newham said.
In recent years, mounting frustration among the high numbers of black South Africans who continue to live in relative poverty has often erupted in the form of service delivery protests like the one in Meqheleng.
Newham noted that police handling of such protests tended to escalate conflict rather than neutralize it. "They think their job is to squash protest, and anyone taking part is seen as the enemy," he told IRIN. "Often they fire tear gas and rubber bullets before there's any real reason to."
Sam Motseare, chairperson of Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group, of which Tatane was also a member, was among those who witnessed how quickly relations between protesters and police can disintegrate. "On that fateful day there was lots of police - we were shocked there were so many," he said.
The protesters, whose main complaint was that parts of the township had been without running water for several years, had obtained permission to march and proceeded to the municipal offices without incident.
"Somebody started throwing stones from the roof of the offices - that's when things starting getting out of control," said Motseare, who said the police did not seem to have appropriate training to deal with the situation.
He told IRIN that he heard the police officer in charge give the order to shoot Tatane. "It has broken our trust in the police," he said. "We're afraid to call for another march."
Newham and others argue that the escalation in the use of force by the SAPS goes beyond the issue of training. Statements by political and SAPS leaders in recent years urging police to make use of their weapons to deal with criminals have been heard by the ranks.
"The subliminal message that has been conveyed to members of the police service... seemed to encourage a gloves-off approach," said David Bruce, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
"A lot of police management... believe that excessive force is necessary in order to get the job done, which often means turning a blind eye to how force is used." South Africa's high rates of violent crime also mean that many people welcome a tougher stance by the police.
Norman Mampane, spokesman of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), criticized a decision in April 2010 to introduce military-style ranks to the SAPS, describing it as "the re-militarization of the police service".
"Communities have a right to march and demonstrate," he told IRIN. "The police shouldn't be used to crush the views of protesters and strikers."
ICD not part of the solution
Within two weeks of Tatane's death eight police officers were arrested on charges of murder and assault, but Newham said it was more common for the police to evade responsibility.
The alleged shooting and subsequent death of South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) member Petros Msiza by police during clashes with striking bus workers in Pretoria in March was not captured by cameras and so far no one has been arrested. SAMWU spokesperson Tahir Sema said it was far from the first time union members had experienced violent treatment by police.
"We've put together evidence over a number of years," he told IRIN. "We've been calling for some time now for a judicial inquiry, but until we get those in government accepting that levels of police brutality are unacceptable, we won't be able to ensure that police don't clamp down on protesters."
Newham supports SAMWU's call for an independent judicial inquiry to investigate the patterns and causes of police using excessive force and make policy recommendations, but doubts it will happen.
"It's often seen as politically dangerous to expose findings about the police service to the public, especially in the run-up to elections," he said, referring to municipal elections set for 18 May.
Politicians tend to believe it is the ICD's responsibility to deal with police brutality, but the institution lacks either the capacity or the legal clout to do much more than investigate allegations of misconduct, Newham said. Recommendations for disciplinary action were usually ignored.
Bruce agreed that the ICD had little power to solve the problem. "Their [the ICD] rate of convictions is almost irrelevant," he told IRIN. "The use of force by police needs to be controlled, and that needs to come from enlightened police leaders."