Law enforcement seems thrilled by extreme force on the streets

08 April 2020 - 06:33
By , mbuyiselo botha AND Mbuyiselo Botha
South African police officers and soldiers have been accused of abusing citizens in the name of maintaining law and order during the declared national lockdown.  / ALON SKUY
South African police officers and soldiers have been accused of abusing citizens in the name of maintaining law and order during the declared national lockdown. / ALON SKUY

In a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19, countries the world over have resorted to measures many have accused of being draconian.

Given the severity and brutality of the laws of Draco, 7th century BC Athenian legislator, the comparison may be unfounded. According to Draco, death penalty should be give even also for stealing a cabbage.

However, there is a case to be made about the extremity of some of the regulations enforcing the lockdown in SA, and how the individuals nominated to enforce them execute their duties.

Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown. The army was deployed to support the police to enforce it, nothing peculiar since "legitimate" (in most cases democratic) states have for centuries used public police and the military as its main instruments for maintaining law and order.

I believe there is a lot of interest in the actual measures rather than a thorough critique of how individuals enforce these laws. By individuals, I am alluding to the gun-carrying badge carriers on the ground.

There is nothing wrong with the measures in and of themselves, particularly as the intentions are to keep the virus from spreading. However, there is a great deal to be said about the enforcement.

In a lot of instances, law enforcement officers seem to be thrilled by the licence to use physical force rather than to protect citizens and this is concerning.

In his essay sociologist Max Weber claims that the state is the "only human Gemeinschaft [community] which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this . is one of the things that defines a state".

In other words, legitimate states have the monopoly and exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorise physical force against its residents. According to Weber "successful" states were judged on their ability to institute order, particularly using violence.

At first glance, it seems logical that state apparatus should be centralised, but how then do we hold accountable those individuals that misuse this privilege?

The impunity in which some law enforcement officers have enforced some of the regulations highlights the state's misuse of its monopoly on violence.

Some of the content shared on social media shows that some rough individuals in uniform with no sense of right or wrong, shielded by their badges that allow them to use physical force in the name of law and order.

Anticipating some push back from citizens, Ramaphosa publicly called on law enforcement officers to refrain from a "skop 'n donner"' approach, which means roughing up someone.

However, according to reports, so far eight people have died as a consequence of law enforcement actions during the lockdown. At the time of reporting, this statistic was higher than the seven people who had died as a result of Covid-19 at the time.

Some of the incidents went viral on social media, and as a person who has lived through apartheid watching some law enforcement officers implement their tasks, more so in townships, it is gut-wrenching.

It would be amiss of me to compare a crime against humanity to what we are experiencing now, but the disregard for human dignity, people being assaulted at first sight, almost with no questions asked, I say there are striking similarities.

Our government has shown it is sensitive to some of our pleas during this time and relaxed restrictions when necessary. I would like to plead with the government to ensure that its officials stick within the boundaries of law and order enforcement. It cannot be that citizens fear the Covid-19 pandemic and our soldiers when the latter have taken an oath to protect us.

In the way the government swiftly moved to curb the spread of the virus, the same decisiveness is needed in dealing with law enforcement officers who misuse their power during lockdown.