The past two weeks have seen the world rocked, once again, by another senseless killing of an unarmed Black man at the hands of law enforcement officials. People across the world watched for nine minutes as George Floyd’s life was taken senselessly. The pain and frustration of Black Americans transcended borders and found solidarity here, at home in South Africa.
The occurrence of the excessive use of force by police in South Africa is not novel, nor new. The infliction of excessive use of force, particularly upon Black people, has been a constant in our country’s history. It wasn’t long before the shock of watching George Floyd’s life being taken from him was contextualised in South Africa.
The police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), recorded 393 cases of deaths as a result of police action and 214 cases of deaths in police custody in its 2018/19 annual report. Most recently, outrage was sparked at the death of Mr Collins Khosa, who died after he was allegedly assaulted and beaten by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and the Johannesburg Metro Police (JMPD) during the nationwide lockdown when they saw a half-consumed glass of beer in his yard.
The parallels between the death of Collins Khosa in South Africa and of George Floyd in the United States are clear: both were killed by law enforcement officials who used excessive, disproportionate and unnecessary force. In both cases, the accompanying law enforcement officials stood by and did nothing to prevent the deaths from taking place.
The report released by IPID into the Collins Khosa case found that none of the JMPD or SAPS officers present took steps to prevent the assault of Collin Khosa from taking place at the hands of the SANDF. Not only does the report highlight the details and extent of the horrific incident, but also contains reports of witnesses being threatened and allegedly abused by these officials.
What is clear from the IPID report, is that these officers need to be held accountable. We welcome IPID’s recent recommendation that disciplinary steps against the five JMPD and police officers involved in the assault be taken.
What is of particular concern, however, is the lack of independent oversight and complaints mechanisms for SANDF. We are disappointed at the outcome of a SANDF report that clears the SANDF and JMPD officers of any wrong doing, noting it directly contradicts a Court judgement that Mr. Khosa was tortured and killed. It Is also concerning that the Mission Specific Code of Conduct for Members of the SANDF for ‘Operation Notlela’ falls short of what is necessary to comply with that judgement and international human rights law.
States should not use the military to carry out policing functions, except as a temporary measure in exceptionally serious circumstances in which it is impossible for the authorities to rely solely on law enforcement agencies. When the deployment of the military becomes necessary, States must ensure that they comply with international law and standards on the use of force, including by ensuring that when the armed forces are deployed they are always under the command of civilian authorities and subject to international human rights law and standards, especially on the use of force and firearms, and are provided with the necessary instructions, training and equipment to act in full respect of such standards.
In his judgement on the Khosa case, Judge Fabricius highlighted the pervasive context of inequality in South Africa and the challenges people in poverty and marginalized communities have faced complying with the national lockdown and related measures. At this time of crisis, it is vital that law enforcement officials show restraint in the exercise of police powers and a consent-based, rather than a coercive approach, should be prioritised. Furthermore, the SANDF code of Conduct should be revised and accompanied by a commitment from SAPS, SANDF and the JMP leadership that security forces will be properly instructed, equipped and trained to carry out that function in a lawful, human rights-compliant manner.
Whilst we are reassured by the President’s recent commitment to “spare no efforts in ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice” we want to see an independent and impartial inquiry into the killing of Collins Khosa take place, and that the SANDF and Johannesburg Metro Police officers are brought to justice in accordance with the right to a fair trial. IPID must be fully supported and transparent and must take national and international human rights laws and standards into account. Further to this, all investigative reports into incidents must be made available to the public.
Impunity for crimes such as those committed against Collins Khosa and George Floyd cannot be tolerated. Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials cannot continue. It is high time South Africa ends this pattern of policing where Black lives are under threat. No life should be taken recklessly by those who have who have sworn to protect and uphold the rights of all that live in South Africa. At a time when a global pandemic threatens the lives and liberties of so many, our human rights need to be protected at all costs, not least by those that have sworn to do so.
Shenilla Mohamed is Executive Director of Amnesty International South Africa. She is a journalist, editor and human rights activist and defender and her career spans over three decades. She spent seven years working in the Gulf Region as Bureau Chief for the Gulf News and was Europe Middle East Editor for Inter Press Services so she has a strong understanding of the region and the issues.
This article appeared in the Daily Maverick on 10 June 2020.