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South Africa: online to tackle police brutality and ask for change

The light on police brutality has not only been shed on the United States after the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May but also South Africa by the national army.

Indeed, the strict enforcement of South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown enforced by the police has placed the spotlight on the police’s cruelty and anger that the majority of the Black population for decades has been suffering.

According to the records of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the police watchdog of the country, more than 42,000 complaints have been collected about the police between 2012 and 2019, including rape, killings and torture.

A new website that allows South Africans to report police brutality has drawn input from across the country. Image credit AFP

But the forced coronavirus lockdown and the ban on selling alcohol have thrust the issue into the spotlight, with human rights groups accusing police and the army of using excessive force in low-income areas.

Now a coalition of human rights organisations called C19 is seeking to document those abuses, hoping the data gathered will drive some change through governmental reforms.

A new website has been created and launched in April, allowing South Africans to report police brutal incidents from across the country, mainly from townships in large cities.

Users go through a series of questions on the free-to-use site, where they can submit a testimony together with evidence such as videos and photos for further verification. Yet, for those unable to go online there is a toll-free hotline.

“Documentation of abuses is critical for accountability, otherwise officials won’t see a reason to change,” said Thato Masiangoako, a researcher for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

“Poor, Black communities experience abuse from law enforcement more frequently,” Masiangoako added.

Members of South Africa's opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) hold placards as they demonstrate against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd and Collins Khoza, who died after a confrontation with South African security forces enforcing the nationwide coronavirus disease (Covid-19) lockdown, outside the US embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. Image credit Reuters

Police spokesman Vish Naidoo said individuals were “welcome to play an oversight role on security forces”, but that “it is senseless going to a website and complaining without opening a criminal case otherwise nothing will be done about it”.

More than two decades after the end of white minority rule, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank, with urban areas starkly divided along racial lines.

While the lockdown has emphasised the everlasting abuses, Masiangoako, whose organisation uses litigation and advocacy to support human rights, explained that “this is not a new phenomenon”.

Also, more than 100 people have reported beatings, verbal abuse, torture and humiliation, 80% of them from low-income areas. This data was recorded from the online violence tracker since the website has been created and made available to the population in April this year.

Rights activists say that is likely the tip of the iceberg. Masiangoako said the police watchdog was already investigating at least 10 suspicious deaths that happened during the lockdown, and that tracker tools could help those unable to take action against the security forces.

Nathanial Roloff, director of Safety Lab, which implements projects to mitigate violent crime and also helped build the tracker website claimed: “We hope to get a large pool of data together to highlight behaviour patterns”.

The site and hotline are monitored by the coalition members and any urgent issues are flagged to organisations that can help, Roloff added.

“Attempts to report police in the past have been met with silence or long processes, rarely with justice,” pointed out Roloff.

Women hold placards as they protest against police violence in South Africa. Image credit REUTERS/Marius Bosch

South Africa has seen its version of the Black Lives Matter protests that began in the United States in May and have spread across the globe: in June, protesters gathered in different South African cities carrying placards with the names of George Floyd and Collins Khosa, a South African who died in a Johannesburg township on April 10.

According to his lawyer, Khosa was killed by some soldiers who entered his home and beat him with a rifle after seeing a cup of what they said was alcohol in his yard.

“We draw inspiration from BLM movement,” explained Masiangoako. “Public officials count on energy dying down, and the focus shifting. But what we are seeing is a sustained and persistent demand for change.”

We need and keep asking for change: everyone everywhere does.


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