Drawing a thick red line through the thin blue line

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the reopening of inquest into Ahmed Timol's death, and Hillsborough


Reputedly, the mills of the gods grind slowly but exceedingly fine. When the perpetrators of wrongs are police officers, it can seem that they simply grind to a halt.

This week, almost a half century after the events under scrutiny took place, a South African inquest court re-examined the supposed suicide of political activist Ahmed Timol, while held at John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. His was one of 73 documented deaths, all inflicted with impunity, in police detention over the period 1963-1990. 

Coincidentally also this week, almost 30 years after Britain’s Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football fans died, criminal charges were brought against six people for what happened there. It includes two senior police officers – the officer in command on the day and a knighted former chief constable. 

In South Africa, the judicial process now underway is largely symbolic. The possibilities of legal retribution are diluted by the passage of time and the fact that Timol died while in the custody of a diabolical, secretive security police. In any case, only thee of the officers implicated are still alive.

In Britain, the shorter period and the mass of evidence available, make some form of punishment more likely. The charges against the officers range from misconduct while in public office to multiple charges of manslaughter.

While the lesson that the law will, mostly and eventually, collar the wrongdoer is an important one, these developments in SA and Britain are obviously not only about crime and punishment. They are also about bringing a sense of closure to the loved ones of the victims.

They are also a reminder that the police – whether you choose to call them a “force” or a “service” – occupy an ambiguous place in society. Protection can slide easily into aggression, or even repression. 

The primary purpose of the police is to form that “thin blue line” that shields civilians from a savage criminal underworld. But it is the state that pays salaries and determines senior appointments, so pragmatically,  their ultimate loyalty is to the government of the day.

And, in the case of the SA Police Service (SAPS), what a disaster has resulted from this. All three national commissioners appointed from within ANC ranks over the past 17 years, have been abject failures, with one going to jail and two narrowly avoiding doing so.

As the Institute of Security Studies pointed out with the launch this week of a campaign for a merit-based, transparent process to appoint the next national police commissioner, even the government’s National Development Plan acknowledges that the SAPS has a “serial crisis” of top management. It’s a crisis, says the ISS, that has “destabilised the SAPS and fundamentally undermined public safety”. 

That is an understatement. Not only does lack of police leadership mean that crime is rampant and the nation’s citizens are being robbed and slaughtered with relative impunity, but the police are distressingly often the offenders.

Statistics from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), which is supposed to police the police, tell the scale of the problem. In 2015/16, there were 216 deaths in SAPS custody, while a further 366 people died as a result of police action.

Of those deaths, 66 – as supposedly was the demise of Timol – were claimed as suicides.

Interim Ipid figures presented to the parliamentary oversight committee last week, show a worrying upward trend from that report. Deaths from police actions this year were up by 30% to 207, compared to the same period last year.

Just under six out of 10 of those deaths were the result of “police brutality”, as Ipid put it.  Just over 4 out of 10 of those deaths were while the arrested person was in police custody.

One cannot simply conclude from these statistics that the new SAPS is as bad, or even worse, than the apartheid era one. The one thing that has improved since the death of Timol, is official record keeping. 

What hasn’t improved is our ability as a supposedly civilised society to ensure justice. In the period 2015/16, Ipid managed to secure only 4 convictions for deaths in custody and 25 for deaths as a result of police actions.  From those 29 convictions for wrongful death came not a single jail sentence. Not one. 

As Gareth Newman, analyst at ISS, points out, the first step to rectifying the SAPS’s problems is to ensure that the next national police commissioner is fit to serve. SA, both in terms of ordinary crime and police brutality, cannot afford another fool in gold braid. 

But, at the end of the day, it comes down not to mechanisms of government. As with the re-opening of the Timol inquest and the launch of Hillsborough prosecutions, it ultimately comes down to the determination of ordinary people to hold their governments and their public servants to account.

We must seek justice not only for Timol, but for anyone and everyone who has been the victim of police criminality. 

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