The killing of more than 30 mineworkers by police on Thursday is a watershed in post-apartheid policing and politics. Whatever the challenges confronting police in the face of an agitated and armed group of workers, the numbers of miners killed seems to reflect an action that seriously transgresses the limits of a reasonable response. The images on TV do nothing to dispel notions that the police response was grossly exaggerated. But more than being a watershed, this tragedy compels us to reflect and deliberate upon the disintegration of so-called miracle transition.
Our previous police commissioner Bheki Cele and the then deputy minister of police, Fikile Mbalula, were the foremost proponents of a policing approached they entitled shoot-to-kill, an approach to fighting crime that centred around a militarisation of the police and a return to apartheid-style kragdadigheid. Our former police general and his “militant” deputy-minister went all over the country, promising poor communities that the police would be acting viciously against “armed and dangerous criminals”.
Moreover they emphasised that attacks on police officers would be met with maximum force. The killing of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg last year was the first public example of police brutality resulting in the death of a protestor. The very same “shoot to kill” commissioner went to pay his condolences to the family of Tatane. Now we have 30 Andries Tatanes, the logical consequence of a police mentally geared towards maximum force, especially in the face of the killing of two of their colleagues by armed miners. The untransformed armed might of a state will always be turned against the poor, with interpretations of armed and dangerous becoming more nebulous and all-encompassing.
Cele and Mbalula’s reactionary policing approach, though no longer official government policy, inspired an attitude among a police that always felt uncomfortable with the fundamental changes envisaged in the immediate aftermath of the political transition in 1994, and never fully committed to implementing a policing model that seeks to deliver a more intelligent, community-based policing service. No wonder Cele was seen as a “real cop” by so many old-era police officers.
The failure of the ANC government to develop and consistently implement the envisaged transition in policing in the face of reactionary responses from apartheid-era police officers is reflective of a broader ideological and political decay that has become endemic to the ruling party. In so many areas of our political life and governance, the search for new and progressive ways of being and doing has been replaced with an easy resort to the status quo ante. The Protection of Information Bill and the militarisation of the police are simply examples of a broader turn to the right that now drives the ANC’s politics.
And like we turn to apartheid-era models of governing, or rather ruling, we will probably be inspired by the example of Adriaan Vlok and others who murdered at will, and in the end sought their forgiveness in the washing of their victims’ feet, and nothing more.