When Will South African Police Stop Dragging People from Their Vans?

By Claire Simpson

This week, South African police attached a man to the back of a van and dragged him along the street for nearly 500 yards. This horrific case of police brutality was caught on film in the Daveyton Township outside Johannesburg: uniformed policemen forcefully handcuffed a taxi driver to the back of their marked police vehicle and drove away, in front of a crowd of people.

The man, identified as Mido Macia, was found dead a few hours later in a police cell with injuries to his head and upper abdomen, as well as internal bleeding. The postmortem revealed that he died from these injuries, which Daveyton detainees say he sustained while being beaten to death. One of the policemen in question claims that Macia had grabbed his gun and assaulted him, like that excuses dragging a man behind a car and beating him to death as a form of self-defence. 

While it's clearly an atrocious, shocking story, extreme police violence has become a regular occurence in what is supposedly Africa’s most developed country. An average of 860 South Africans have died in police custody or as a result of police actions every year since 2009. Police are often charged with brutality and corruption, and occasionally even rape and murder, which obviously aren't the kind of charges you want to see brought against the people being paid to protect you.

They're committing the crimes they’re supposed to be preventing, so how on earth are civilians supposed to put any trust in them? Remember last year when the police shot 34 people during the strikes at the Marikana mines? Or the other week, when the lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder charge was taken off the case because, as it turns out, he may have attempted to kill a taxi driver in 2009? Despite all that, the severity of this latest incident has managed to shock a nation that's grown entirely accustomed to this kind of behavior.

According to Jacob Van Garderen, the national director for Lawyers For Human Rights, Johannesburg, police violence isn’t set to disappear any time soon. “Incidents of police brutality are on the increase in South Africa, and human rights organizations and society groups have become very concerned about this worrying trend,” Jacob said. “The South African police service needs to reconsider its approach and move away from this old way of aggressive policing to a smarter and more professional way of approaching crime prevention.”


Riah Phiyega.

National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has urged South Africans “to remain vigilant and continue to report all acts of crime irrespective of who is involved." She also told a group of police officials that their reputation “has been severely but not irreparably tarnished over the past several years." You should probably know that this is the same woman who said “Don’t be sorry about what happened” to the shooters of the Marikana miners while they appeared in court for 70 charges, including murder. And the police commissioner before her, Bheki Cele Well, was the man who wanted the law changed so that police could “shoot to kill” suspects without having to “worry about what happens after.” So, with people like this in charge, it’s perhaps not surprising that police have rewritten their job description.

Macia, a 27-year-old taxi driver, was from neighboring Mozambique, so not only is this another case of police brutality for SA, but another xenophobic attack to add to the tally. Xenophobia in South Africa peaked in 2008, claiming about 50 lives and forcing thousands to flee. Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, and many other Africans flooded into South Africa to escape violent conditions in their home countries, but were faced with much worse upon arrival. These attacks have continued in waves—immigrants live in fear of another nationwide flare-up—and so long as police are setting this kind of example, their fear is totally justified.

That fear is also exacerbated when the police themselves are accused of xenophobic attacks. Jacob explained, “The assaults committed by police officers against foreign nationals is a very big problem. We've seen many incidents of racist attacks against foreign nationals by police officers, but it's not clear if this was the cause for the attack against the Mozambican taxi driver."

As locals filmed Macia struggling for his life, they shouted in Zulu, warning the policemen that they were being recorded, but that didn’t seem to matter. Macia apparently got into a little squabble with the police about where his minibus was parked. The police insisted it was obstructing traffic and curiously figured that dragging the driver behind their car in public was fair punishment. The view that this was an unnecessary level of punishment is shared by Jacob: “If you look at the videos, it’s quite blatant. The taxi driver was already restrained, there was no need for them to proceed with dragging him behind the van and the assaults that apparently took place afterwards."

And the fact that the crowd were watching the cops' every move didn’t seem to bother them. “It’s that impunity that's of concern—the fact that they seem to be beyond reproach and above consequences for their actions,” Jacob explained.

When an onlooker caught in the footage shouts “What has he done?” a policeman replies “He started it!” I remember using that excuse when I was about six and kicked my brother in the balls for calling me a nasty name. My mom saw through it instantly, so let's hope the South African government will do the same and someone's brought to justice quickly, otherwise police will grant themselves license to continue governing the citizens of South Africa with whatever unjust, barbaric methods they see fit to employ.

@ClaireSimpzim

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