The grainy video at first shows a struggle between two South African policemen and a man in a red shirt. Then after a few seconds, something happens that appears in no training manual: The man is tied by his hands to the back of a police van and it drives off, dragging him on the ground in front of a screaming crowd.
The treatment of taxi driver Mido Macia, 27, who later died of his injuries, has turned South Africa’s police from accuser into accused. A court hearing for eight officers arrested on murder charges related to the incident in Daveyton on Johannesburg’s eastern outskirts was postponed until March 8.
“The cops are treating us very badly,” Frieda Nuku, a vegetable trader and friend of Macia’s, said by phone from Daveyton on March 2. “They are a law unto themselves. Mido was a good guy. He did me a lot of favors.”
The incident, footage of which was obtained by Johannesburg’s Daily Sun newspaper, is the latest in a succession of high-profile cases that have implicated officers in homicide and stoked public outrage. Just a week earlier, the lead investigator in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee track star who’s accused of killing his girlfriend, was replaced after it emerged that he faced seven attempted murder charges for allegedly firing at a minibus.
The judge in the Pistorius bail hearing said the investigator, Hilton Botha, made a series of errors, including possibly contaminating the crime scene, not checking for other mobile phones owned by Pistorius and misidentifying substances found at his home as testosterone.
In August last year, police killed 34 protesters, most of them armed with wooden sticks and machetes, at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum mine. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate probed 932 deaths in police custody in the year through March 2012, according to the oversight body’s latest annual report.
“There is a lack of professionalism and training in the police force,” Kerwin Lebone, a security researcher at the Institute for Race Relations in Johannesburg, said in a March 1 phone interview. “They don’t follow the ethos of what South African police are supposed to deliver to the public at large. It’s been a real let-down and a disappointment to the public.”
The poor state of policing in Africa’s largest economy is reflected in the crime statistics. About 43 homicides are committed on average each day. While the murder rate has fallen to 30.9 per 100,000 people from 67.9 in 1995 when national statistics were compiled for the first time, it is more than six times that of the U.S.
A 2011 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found South Africa had the world’s 13th-highest murder rate. Honduras topped the list with 82.1 murders per 100,000 people.
The cost of insuring against a debt default for five years climbed to an eight-month high of 178 basis points last month, indicating a deterioration in risk perception. Credit default swaps on the debt have increased 40 basis points since the Marikana killing on Aug. 16. The rand has slumped 6.7 percent against the dollar this year, the third-worst performer of 16 major currencies monitored by Bloomberg after the pound and the yen. It depreciated 0.1 percent to 9.0708 per dollar by 11:29 a.m. in Johannesburg.
The police force’s failings are largely due to poor leadership, according to Chandre Gould, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security tudies.
Police commissioners are appointed for political reasons, “rather than on their experience of policing, their knowledge of policing and their ability to lead a very large and complex organization,” she said by phone from the southern town of George on Feb. 25.
Riah Phiyega, the current police chief, served as the head of a government commission reviewing the role of state companies and had no policing experience before her appointment her appointment by President Jacob Zuma in June.
Her predecessor Bheki Cele, was fired in June last year, after a board of inquiry found that he was unfit for office and was guilty of unlawful conduct by agreeing to lease offices costing more than three times the market rate.
Cele, who had urged officers to “shoot to kill” when facing armed criminals, took over from Jackie Selebi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption in 2010.
The government says it’s made strides in improving policing and will act against rogue officers. It condemned Marcia’s killing and ordered an investigation.
“All police officers have a duty to fight crime and those who are not worthy of wearing our badge and uniform, must know that they have no place within South African Police Service,” State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele said in an e-mailed statement. “Police officers who abuse their authorities must know that they will not succeed in their criminal conduct.”
Some perpetrators of police brutality have been brought to justice.
Seven policemen are on trial for shooting and beating protester Andries Tatane during a demonstration in Ficksburg in the central Free State province in April 2011. Four others who set dogs on illegal immigrants during a training session were jailed in November of that year. Both incidents were captured on camera.
Nuku wants Macia’s killers to also be held accountable. The Magistrate’s Court in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, today ruled that the accused can’t be identified until an identity parade is held.
About 50 people claiming to be residents from Daveyton, demonstrated peacefully outside the court today. Policemen formed a line between the protesters and the court entrance.
“What they did was illegal,” she said. “I want them to spend a long time in jail.”