Police Brutality in South Africa

Police Brutality in South Africa – Understand


Currently, South Africa is experiencing an influx of cases of police brutality. More than 5 500 cases of police criminal offences are reported every year. Of these numbers, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) Annual Report Statistics, more than 3 500 cases of torture and assault (police brutality) were reported [1]. 

This equates to more than 60% of reported cases of police brutality (torture and assault) with an average of 65% for the past four financial years (2014/15 – 2017/18). This means that, after twenty-four years into democracy, South Africa is still struggling to police in a democratic manner. With this large number of reported cases of police violence, one would expect the conviction rate to be high as well since there is an IPID oversight body that is responsible for ensuring that the police are accountable for their acts of violence.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in South Africa as it is evident that, since the financial year 2014/15 to 2017/18, only 1.9% of police officers were convicted at a conviction rate of lower than 2.5% per year. Shockingly, there was a zero conviction rate for torture, whereas assault was the predominant crime that ended in convictions. In the four-year period, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) declined to prosecute in 36.58% of the cases.

These statistics indicate that South Africa did not only inherit the culture of police brutality as the legacy of the past but has inherited the acceptance of such criminal behaviour by failure to hold the police accountable for their criminal acts of police brutality.

The authors conducted a study involving in-depth interviews with ten KZN-IPID investigating officers. The findings revealed that KZN citizens experience strangulation, suffocation, and tubing during police raids and interrogation.

South Africa is therefore far from reaching its crime and violent free ideal as our policing style continues to resemble that of the apartheid regime.

Is South Africa replicating one of its history’s worst blunders?

Globally, police violence has become entrenched in policing styles in the occupational setting of the police and South Africa is no exception. Suspects and witnesses experience extreme violence and cruelty, including being suffocated, or a plastic bag might be put over his or her head, restricting his or her breathing, and a tube down the throat or strangulation may also be used.

This suggests that police use of force as permitted by the Constitution in the Criminal Procedure Act No. 51 of 1977, section 49(2), leads to police brutality and is often life-threatening, as breathing is mostly impeded and it occurs over a period of time.

However, the majority of the time the Criminal Procedure Act No. 51 of 1977, section 49(2), is strategically overlooked and undermined by the police.

Especially the issue of resistance, where force is required only “if a suspect resists the attempt at arrest and flees” and “is proportional in the circumstance to overcome resistance or to prevent the suspect from fleeing” [2]. 

Suspects are brutally beaten even when they were not resisting arrest and the level of force used by the police appeared to be disproportional to the circumstances in which suspects had to be restrained.

Suspects are being subjected to beating, punching, kicking and slapping when they resist arrest, even when they are no longer a threat to the police or society at large; and as a first resort, prior to an arrest, mainly to intimidate and instil fear.

All these appalling techniques undermine the Constitution [3], the Bill of Rights* and violate the human rights** of the people that the police are tasked to serve and protect.

One IPID investigating officer indicated that “If you don’t beat them, you will not get the information you need instantly, to move on it”. It is this attitude that the police have towards suspects that has prompted the police to replicate one of history’s worst blunders. 

The use of violence by the police has implications not just in terms of individuals’ pain and suffering or the workings of the Criminal Justice System, but that it also causes a social problem that ripples throughout society [4]. 

One major issue associated with police brutality is that it negatively impacts the relationship between the police and the public. Bearing in mind that the main objective of the police in a democratic South Africa is to police communities in partnership with its members, it is a travesty that the public is gradually losing confidence in the police as the police themselves become offenders [5].  

What has caused police officers to become offenders and suspects to be victims of police violence?

Police officers are pressured by the management to meet projected targets for the retrieval of illegal weapons and drugs.

The pressure on police officers to meet targets gives context to the problem of police brutality. Due to the pressure to meet projected targets, police officers rely on illegal methods of operating such as aggression, beatings, strangulation, suffocation, and slapping and kicking to coerce suspects to hand over illegal weapons or drugs.

Such actions cannot be condoned under any circumstances, because there are other more appropriate and legitimate methods that the police can apply to ensure that members of the public cooperate in crime prevention.

This notion is a matter of concern because it suggests that the effectiveness of the police service is measured by the number of the retrieved weapons or drugs, and whether their operational mandate equates to a projected statistical target each year. In this context, the national goal of a community policing service is marginalised and even completely ignored.

Parry (2009) warns us that the use of force may become a ritual if it is accepted as an effective strategy to solve problems and if the victim’s suffering and pain run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the law, as the victim becomes isolated at the moment when s/he is in need of the law’s protection [6]. 

Therefore, the management needs to provide police officers with explicit instructions on how to meet projected targets, if not, they will revert to illegal methods of violence since the potential for ‘going rogue’ is very high.

Police raids and stop-and-search operations give effect to police violence.

Police officers conduct raids when they have identified an area where there is a high rate of crime and, in most cases, when they were alerted by the members of the community that crime was rife in that area.

This partnership between the police and the community in identifying problems within the community has had an adverse effect on police operational procedures.

This is because police officers turn these investigations into volatile raids by beating, suffocating and strangulating community members to force them to hand in their firearms or drugs or to provide evidence.

What makes these raids excessively volatile is that the police intentionally inflict confusion and disorientation when they forcefully enter homes or other locations.

This then leads to community members being brutality beaten to death by police officers and the rights of raid victims are violated by the same people that they are supposed to call for rescue in their time of need. 

Members of the public are not aware of the rules and procedures that guide official raids and stop-and-search operations.

Their attitude is often uncooperative and provocative and they then become victims of police brutality, as the police are pressured to achieve targets and thus do not tolerate any resistance.

However, regardless of the public’s ignorance of police procedures, the manner in which the police respond to the public is the main problem that results in police brutality.

This suggests that the lack of knowledge of police procedures is defined by the police as provoking them. According to one IPID investigating officer, violence erupts when the public responds with statements such as, ‘I will not say anything until you show me a warrant’.

Such responses irritate officials and make them respond with violence as another IPID investigating officer indicated that when the public responds in that manner, ‘surely the police will lose his temper and use force to make him respond to his question’.

In support, research has found that some police officers use improper force in cases where the civilians defy police authority [7]. This has been the main issue in South Africa. 

The public reacts violently towards the police during public protest, police raids and stop and search operations.

Members of the public provoked the police by disobeying their instructions, often in a disrespectful and challenging manner. They often reacted violently towards the police, swore at them and often pelted them with stones, particularly during strikes.

However, IPID investigating officers argue that it is the police who instigate acts of violence by using excessive force to restrain and extract information from suspects. Although the members of the community may be violent towards the police, as trained officials they are prohibited from subjecting people to any form of violence or cruel, unhuman or degrading retaliation.

Police officers are inadequately trained.

The perpetuation of police brutality is rooted in the lack of comprehensive training to equip members of the SAPS with skills and strategies in dealing with challenges such as suspects’ lack of compliance and dealing with them in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Act No. 51 of 1977, section 49 (2).

Police training is lacking in two areas, namely interviewing skills and a legal approach to restraining a suspect.

The trainings that the police get do not speak to the challenges that they encounter when executing their duties on the street. The absence of an appropriate approach to certain crime situations resulted in the adoption of illegal methods of restraining and arresting as well as in banned methods of interrogation that are against the law and a violation of the human rights of suspects. 

Preventative measures

1. Improve police training

Two main concerns were raised by the participants, namely that police training does not speak to the challenges that the police encounter in their occupational setting, and that it lacks the aspect of interviewing skills.

Based on these concerns, it is clear that the SAPS training needs to be reassessed and improved to focus on and emphasise how the police are to behave in situations such as public protests, police raids, and stop and search operations.

Training is an art that requires not only the ability to perform tasks but the ability to explain why and how things are done. The police are lacking the ability to explain to the members of the public why they were conducting raids or stop- and-search operations [8]. 

They lack training that speaks to the kind of situation that they might encounter in their occupational setting and provides realistic and appropriate ways of responding to those situations.

The first step is to identity how members of the public respond to police raids, and stop and searches, and then shape the police responses based on public response, because it is difficult to change the behaviour of the public. Hence, it is better to shape the response of the police.

It cannot be argued that the police need to be trained to deal with violent suspects, however, learning interrogation skills is equally as important as learning how to deal with violent suspects because cases of torture during interrogations continue to increase in South Africa.

2. Disregard information extracted through police excessive use of force

Information that was obtained through intimidation of a suspect or torture of the suspect should not be used as evidence in the court of law.

This might help to reduce the use of excessive force to force confessions and extract information.

Once police officers know that the use of torture or of excessive violence may jeopardise their case, they might refrain from using force from the start and instead rely on other legitimate methods of gathering information and evidence from suspects. 

3. Public awareness on the importance of lodging a complaint

It is important for the public to file complaints against the police because a complaint may assist in identifying the rogue officers for the purpose of ensuring that they are held accountable for their unlawful behaviour towards the public.

In order to ensure that members of the public file complaints against the police, the following needs to be considered:

  • Inform the public about the role and function of the IPID as an oversight body that is responsible for investigating allegations of police brutality. This will ensure that many cases are reported and investigated.  
  • Conduct awareness campaigns with community members to educate them on how to lodge a complaint and the necessary documents to provide when lodging a complaint such as a medical report (J88) if a victim has been severely beaten and to take note of the important information of the suspect (police officer) that brutally beat him or her. Such campaigns may assist in ensuring that the complainant has enough evidence when reporting the case and, in that way, ensuring that the suspect (police officer) accounts for his/her acts of violence towards the complainant.

4. Educate members of the public about civil litigation

Civil litigation can be used to ensure that the pain and suffering of community members that experience victimization at the hands of the police are catered for financially as well as to ensure that their pain and suffering is not ignored or disregarded by the State. 

Litigations may be effective in ensuring the following:

  • Preventing police officers from using excessive force when conducting raids and stop and search operations
  • It will protect person’s rights to security, free from being tortured in any way and not to be treated in a cruel, unhuman or degrading way.
  • It can be used as a form of compensating victims of police violence for their pain and suffering at the hands of the State. 


The scourge of police brutality that still plagues South African communities is clearly not an ‘old’ or a ‘new’ South African phenomenon, as it appears to be firmly embedded in a police culture that persists in embracing force and violence as operational tools.

To address this problem, the SAPD has gone a long way in introducing the democratic principles that are entrenched in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in its legal framework. However, a true democracy does not reside in its laws only but is embedded in the hearts and minds of its people.

The public, police officers, and SAPD and IPID investigators and managers will therefore do well to heed the words of former President Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 


* Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act No. 13 of 2013 Section 4(1) state that: “Any person who commits torture; attempts to commit torture; or incites, instigates, commands or procures any person to commit torture, is guilty of the offence of torture and is on conviction liable to imprisonment, including imprisonment for life”.

**Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, section 12(1) reminds the police that everyone has the right to security, free from all forms of violence, free from being tortured in anyway and not to be treated in a cruel, unhuman, or degrading way.

List of References

[1] Independent Police Investigative Directorate. (2015). Independent Police Investigative Directorate Annual Report 2014/15. Pretoria: Government Printer.

[2[ Republic of South Africa. (1977). Criminal Procedure Act, No. 51 of 1977. Pretoria: Government Printer.

[3] Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Act 131 of 2013, subsection 4(1) and (2)

[4] Phillips, T., & Smith, P. (2000). Police violence occasioning citizen complaint: an empirical analysis of time-space dynamics. British Journal of Criminology, 40(3), 480−496.

[5] Harris, C. J. (2009). Police use of improper force: a systematic review of the evidence. Routledge.

[6] Parry J. (2009). Torture Nation, Torture Law. Georgetown Law Journal 97: 1001-1056

[7] Ibid, 6

[8] Latham, E. J. (2001). Civpol certification: a model for recruitment and training of civilian police monitors. World Affairs, 163(4), 192−203.