Experts call for mediators to ease tensions created by soldiers and officers during lockdown

Police officers and members of the SANDF patrolled the streets and various hostels in Alexandra during the 21-day lockdown on March 28 2020.
Police officers and members of the SANDF patrolled the streets and various hostels in Alexandra during the 21-day lockdown on March 28 2020.
Image: ALON SKUY​

Policing oversight and social conflict experts have called for urgent dialogue and immediate deployment of community mediators to ease tensions between law enforcement and the communities they have to keep indoors during the national lockdown.

Almost halfway through the 21-day lockdown, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) and the Military Ombudsman have received 12 and six complaints respectively against officers and soldiers ranging from murder, attempted murder and assault.

One of the cases against the police has since been dropped, as the autopsy revealed a man in Cape Town died due to a heart attack, and not police brutality, police minister Bheki Cele said on Thursday.

The alleged abuses committed by SANDF members relate to assault, Military Ombudsman spokesperson Nthombikayise Jacha said.

Ipid spokesperson Sontaga Seisa said their investigations included six allegations of assault, three deaths as result of police action and three of discharging of firearms.

Eldred de Klerk, a comparative policing and social conflict specialist at the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis, said government was dealing with a double-edged sword.

“Yes, laws must be obeyed and there are remedies to address people breaking the law, but there is never a cause for force unless there is an attack on security forces, which there has not been.

“There must be answers as to why confrontational policing is occurring.”

He said while government must be lauded for the key consulting measures it put in place to prepare the population, the state should use community policing forums and ward councillors and their networks to ensure people were properly educated about the dangers and complied with the lockdown.

“It’s vital that core groups of people, who are skilled and trained in mediation and education are put in place to engage communities, with the police and military acting in a supporting role.”

De Klerk said while the assaults looked petty, they eroded people’s dignity.

“They are completely disproportionate to the punishments citizens could have been given, which includes warnings.”

He warned that while the police and military were there to ensure compliance so the infection curve was flattened, it would not take much for the growing animosity, which was under the surface, to boil over, “especially if these assaults continue to escalate”.

Sean Tait, African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum director, said government should have looked for options instead of the immediate militarising of the lockdown.

“The virus is here and the infection numbers are increasing, but this is a public health issue. The first approach should not have been calling in security forces when there are other health response options available.

“Government should have looked to other countries which have dealt successfully with other outbreaks and learnt from them. Health education campaigns, as with Ebola, are crucial in stopping Covid-19.

“Government should have approached this from a human rights perspective. The current approach has thrown the SANDF and SAPS into an unprecedented environment, which potentially carries huge risks around proper checks and balances and command and control systems.”

He said with challenges around security forces abusing their powers and infringing on citizens' rights dialogue was urgently needed.

“Parliament's policing and defence committees must be out conducting oversight and keeping the executive in check in terms of ensuring the lockdown is properly policed.”

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