The death of a protester in Setsoto, Ficksburg, on Wednesday last week, apparently at the hands of riot police, is not an isolated incident. The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), according to its 2010 annual report, investigated 1 769 cases of people dying in police custody or as a result of police action, the Mail & Guardian newspaper reports.
Video footage of the protester, identified as 33-year-old Andries Tatane, caused shockwaves when it was broadcast on SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) prime time news on Wednesday evening. SABC chief executive Robin Nicholson, told the Mail & Guardian the broadcaster was currently assessing whether it had breached its own code of conduct by showing the footage.
Tatane was participating in a 4 000-strong march to the Setsoto municipal offices to demand a response to a memorandum on service delivery failures that the community had sent to the mayor, Mbothoma Maduna.
David Bruce, a senior researcher at the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation, said there was a high level of killings by police. “There isn’t a proper leadership engagement on the use of force,” he said. “Leaders have an ambivalent attitude that this type of policing is needed to get the job done. One can expect more such incidents — until the police recognise the need to engage on standards that their members should uphold when using force.”
The ICD has taken over the investigation of Tatane’s death, although the South African Police Service is conducting an internal investigation.
Colonel Sam Makhele, the spokesperson for the Free State police commissioner, said that deaths in police hands were rare. “It’s unfortunate that someone lost his life, but it is an isolated incident,” he said. “We’ve never experienced such a thing in the province.” But according to the ICD’s annual report, in the Free State seven suspects died while they were being arrested and 47 died as a result of police action or in police custody.
The footage flighted on SABC shows Tatane being beaten and kicked by armed policemen, and then collapsing. He died 20 minutes later, before an ambulance had arrived, the M&G said. The Times Live website also reported that he was shot twice with live ammunition, but that is not shown on the video. The site claimed that he was attacked by police after he had asked why they were firing a water cannon at an elderly protester. A post-mortem examination was held on Friday.
On Thursday Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa released a statement promising to investigate Tatane’s death. He also emphasised the need for protesters to abstain from violent and destructive behaviour. “The ministry issued a public statement almost two months ago where we emphasised that strikes are democratic and constitutional rights of every citizen to express themselves, which government fully respects,” the statement reads. “However, what the Constitution does not prescribe are violent, barbaric, destruction of property and intolerant conducts, including provoking and touting [sic] police.”
Jackson Mthembu, the African National Congress’ national spokesman, condemned the beating but attacked the SABC for screening the footage. “We are concerned that the public broadcaster showed such shocking and disturbing images on its prime time news slot with disregard to young viewers and other sensitive people who obviously would have been disturbed to various degrees by such images,” Mthembu said. “We, therefore, also call upon the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa to investigate whether the public broadcaster has not overstepped its mandate in this regard.”
“The footage was carried with a warning and it reports what happened without prejudice,” said Nicholson. “It was in graphic detail and it was not sanitised. The question is: did it comply with our editorial policies? Our senior editors will advise us and the matter will be dealt with accordingly.”