Racism in the SAPS must be stamped out

Racism in the SAPS must be stamped out

Sibusiso Ntuli

Once again Racism will receive unprecedented attention at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban later this month.

This concerted effort of different countries to meet for the purpose of having such discussions is indicative of the fact that racism is a worldwide problem.

For South Africa, the host country, it is important to examine how successful our own country has been in tackling this problem. Focus should be on public institutions that once existed to promote apartheid and now exist to promote democratic rule.

One institution that we should definitely examine is the South African Police Service (SAPS). The North East Rand dog unit incident, last year, is an example the brutal face of racism.

In this incident the perpetrators used racist language, which showed without doubt that their actions were motivated by racism.

But it is unhelpful to only say that it exists without being able to point exactly to the nature of the problem. Not enough research has been done to clearly illustrate the nature of racism in the SAPS.

Yet despite this lack of research there are ongoing allegations that it is rife and that there is a need to deal with it. How does the institution deal with something without well-researched, information?

The majority of black and white police officials will stop a young black male in South Africa dressed "suspiciously" and driving an expensive car while a white male in exactly the same condition will go by without even being noticed.

This is an example of how racial stereotyping underpins racism in the SAPS although it is possible that some officers may feel compelled to operate in this way or face being marginalized.

Even though it may not be comfortable to deal with some of the manifestations of racism, fair and honest discussions around race and racism need to take them on board.

Zizamele Cebekhulu, president of the Police, Prisons and Civil Rights Union (Popcru), alleged that racism was behind the assault of a black colleague by white police officials in the Northwest province suspected of being involved in theft of firearms.

Popcru's provincial secretary in the Northern Cape, Lesego Wolfe, was quoted as saying that there are more black police officers that appear for disciplinary cases where whites are the disciplinarians.

Recently in the Northern Cape white police officials were called racists when they purportedly did not incarcerate a white suspect who was arrested for possessing stolen goods.

Such statements suggest that there is a problem and begin to point to how racism may presently manifest itself in the SAPS. However, it could be argued that these incidences are not necessarily motivated by racism.

They could be indicative of bigger problems of brutality or management in the police that are then seen through racial lenses. Racism does not always operate so overtly nor is it always this one sided.

However, the little research that has been undertaken into racism in the SAPS suggests that it is a real problem that needs to be tackled.

A SAPS report issued to the SAPS leadership in July 1999, concluded that racism is "institutionalized in the structure, practices and procedures of the SAPS and is reinforced in the informal relationships, communication and attitudes of a number of individuals at a number of levels."

Theresa Oakley-Smith, one member of an Independent Committee of Inquiry into racism in the SAPS, said warnings in their report were not heeded by the former Minister of Safety and Security Mr. Sydney Mafumadi.

The apparent disregard of the findings from this research suggests that it is seen as a taboo or sensitive subject in the police. This could explain the lack of will to examine racism in the police.

But, it may also be that there is little knowledge of how to conduct meaningful research on racism in the police. It may also be that because racism is to a large extent hidden therefore it is difficult to deal with.

A common position that has been taken so far in the racism debate supports the notion that white people are the only perpetrators of racism. It seeks to avoid the possible fact that black police officials may also be racist.

If the racism of white police officials is understood in relation to the power they have over their black victims, what makes it different when black officers do the same to foreigners where power and race relations are quite similar?

There is transformation happening within the SAPS, as there is with every other state institution. What remains a concern is the extent to which this transformation deals with changing attitudes that are inherited from the apartheid SAP that was designed to protect and enforce racist ideology.

International research shows that policing institutions are prominent arenas for racist attitudes to play themselves out.

In Australia, for instance, aboriginal Australians are generally victims of police racism. While in America, despite research findings that white Americans commit most criminal acts, the African-American male is still largely perceived as the face of crime and also constitutes the largest part of the prison population.

These are some of the issues that the World Conference will have to grapple with. The bigger challenge remains however with the individual countries, like our own, to examine the issue further.

Seven years of 'non-racial' or even 'multiracial' democracy is evidently too short a space to have major expectations of progress in dealing with the issue. More time and resources need to be dedicated towards finding out what will work in dealing with and possibly uprooting racism at all levels of society.

Sibusiso Ntuli is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In the Sowetan, 10 August 2001.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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