I must admit I was still young when former President P W Botha declared the state of emergency in 1986 in an attempt to fight anti-apartheid turmoil. I can still remember the day when I saw members of the South African Defence Force, supported by the Lebowa Police, beating and forcing learners from the surrounding high schools into trucks and police vans, for taking part in a protest.
Today, I pride myself for being a citizen of South Africa, a country that has managed to move from the 1983 Tricameral Constitution, which recognised only the rights of the minorities at the expense of the larger section of the population, to the 1996 Constitution. Unlike its predecessor, the new Constitution protects the rights of all people in the country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom. Under the new Constitution (Section 7), the State is obliged to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights outlined in the Bill of Rights.
However, the events of last week, in which members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) beat and killed an unarmed protestor, Andries Tatane, at a close range during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg, is a reminder of the long road the country has to travel in order to realise human rights for all its citizens. There is nothing wrong in protesting against non-performing local governments. However, there is something fundamentally wrong when the police’s actions amount to the violation of the protestors’ rights.
While many of us might blame the 14 police officers involved in Tatane’s murder, I think the killing exposed government’s failure to empower police to act within the Constitution when dealing with protestors. Maybe, as a starting point, the training for new police recruits should include a specific focus on human rights. Empowering police to act within the constitutional parameters will enable them to act in a manner that is not brutal, protect protestors, avoid loss of life and also draw the line between protests, violence and crime. If nothing is done to change the situation, I’m afraid poor people will continue to face two struggles – the struggle to hold their local government accountable over service delivery, and the struggle to deal with police brutality during service delivery protests.
Tatane didn’t have to lose his life protesting against lack of service delivery.
I support the South African Institute of Race Relations’ view that the beating and shooting of Tatane, who by many accounts sought to come to the defence of others being assaulted by the police, on national television, could provoke a political reaction that government will not be able to contain.
The silence of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) since Tetane’s death is regrettable. Maybe I am a bit ignorant. I tried many times to search the Internet through Google for “South African Human Rights Commission Andries Tatane” or “Andries Tatane Human Rights” or use any other method of searching. I even noticed this silence in cyberspace. If the mandate of the SAHRC is to, among others, take steps and secure appropriate redress where human rights have been violated, why is it silent on Tetane’s death?
Tatane’s death was brutal, unnecessary and took the country backwards in terms of the promotion and protection of human rights. Frankly, I don’t think Tetane’s death will deter people from embarking on similar service delivery protests in future. The killing reminds me of the events of 1986.
- Butjwana Seokoma is an information coordinator at SANGONeT. He writes in his personal capacity.