28 Feb 2013 18:59 – Faranaaz Parker
News that Daveyton police beat and dragged a man behind a police van has sickened South Africans. But police torture of civilians is nothing new.
Mido Macia, a taxi driver, got into an altercation with police after he was found to be obstructing traffic on a busy street. It's alleged that he was further beaten after he was taken to the local police station. He died in police custody as a result of his injuries.
President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence on Thursday, saying that "the visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable … No human being should be treated in that manner."
He said the police were required to operate within the confines of the law in executing their duties. He extended condolences to Macia's family and directed Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to investigate.
But Macia's death while in police custody is not an isolated case. Hundreds of deaths occur in custody or as a result of police action each year. In 2008/2009, 912 people died under such circumstances.
Last year there were 720 reports of deaths in police custody. Of those, about 50% were shot with a police firearm and 13% were assaulted. Only 1% were reported as having been tortured.
In February the Mail & Guardian published an expose on the types of torture meted out to marginalized people. At the time, Poonitha Naidoo, co-ordinator for the Medical Rights Advocacy Network, said the most popular form of police torture in South Africa is called 'tubing' – a method of suffocation similar to the controversial waterboarding torture technique.
Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, told the M&G that police brutality is widespread in the South African Police Service.
"Police abuses, where police physically assault people are very widespread and are a daily occurrence particularly against vulnerable and marginal groups," he said.
"Police are very quick to physically assault people especially when they believe those people have little chance of reporting it and they can get away with it."
Newham said that police have been aware of the problem of police brutality for years but that, because of weak management and poor internal systems, it had never been dealt with.
"Until those weaknesses at the top of the organisation are resolved, we'll continue having widespread police abuse, misconduct and service delivery," he said.
Newham pointed out that in the three years between 2005/2006 and 2008/2009, the number of people shot dead by police almost doubled, from 281 to 556.
This does not include the number of people who died at the hands of police as a result of torture, assault, or being struck by a police vehicle.
A look at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate's annual report for last year shows weak sanctions meted out to officers who commit criminal offenses.
For example, a Kopanong officer convicted of attempted murder got "a R900 fine or 2 months imprisonment, of which R450 and one month is suspended for three years". A Mogwase officer convicted of murder got a fine of "R5 000 or two years imprisonment".
Torture exists in SA
Dominique Dix-Peek, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said recent studies conducted show that a lot of torture still exists in South Africa.
"There has been a lot of pressure on police to deal with crime. Because of the pressure and rhetoric from government and police ministers, police are under a lot of pressure. Typically, they deal with crime in a way that does not promote the human rights of the people that they see," she said.
"Police will pick on less popular victims – people who deal with petty crime or drugs, or people who are not South African citizens because South Africans are not necessarily going to have an outcry over those incidents."
Dix-Peek said the police's treatment of Macia appeared to correlate with this.
The Daveyton case appears to be a clear case of torture, as defined by the UN.
According to UN conventions, if an injury is intentionally inflicted, not legally permissible, casuses severe pain and suffering whether mental or physical, is carried out with the intention of extracting information, bribing or punishing a person, and is commited by an officer of the state, it constitutes torture.
But South Africa has no specific torture laws. Cases like these are usually tried as assault.
Parliament has drafted a Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Bill but it is yet to pass through the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.