Police corruption in South Africa: what does and doesn’t it tell us about the state of the country?

The Economist’s 500-word piece “South Africa’s Police: Bad cop, bad cop routine”, published March 9th, provides a glimpse into the dark side of this Southern African nation. Often referred to as “the darling [reconciliation model] of many legal policy makers in the international community” and as the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa also faces a host of issues that stem from immense corruption and weak rule of law.

Casual observers tend to believe that because Blacks have assumed positions of power in South Africa since 1994, the country’s Black majority is now better represented and considered in the country’s governance and policy-making processes. This might not be the case however, and investigating various components of The Economist‘s latest ZA article in more detail can serve to illustrate why.

As such, I am pulling quotes from “Bad cop, bad cop routine” and exploring them in greater detail an attempt to paint a more complete picture of South Africa’s complex and interconnected social, economic, and political issues.

1. Townships are some of the most enduring and visible remnants of Apartheid in South Africa. Over 3 million Blacks, Indians, and Coloureds were forced to move from centers that Whites retained, to barren and segregated regions. Today, although South Africa has been a democracy since 1994, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world (number 2 according to the CIA World Factbook). Accordingly, townships remain underdeveloped and are growing as the number in poverty increase. Crazily, the nation’s Gini Coefficient is higher now than it was under the Apartheid regime. Although the African National Congress (ANC) is in power and its president is Black (Zulu), inequality in South Africa is still highly correlated to race. The size, ethnic composition, and socioeconomic indicators of townships in South Africa speak to the unfinished and faltering efforts of the government to combat the Apartheid’s legacy.

2. Violence in South Africa is neither common solely between the government and its citizens nor just within the population. In the past several years there have also been frequent incidences of violence targeting immigrants from other African countries. A wave of attacks in 2011 was preceded by more serious xenophobic violence in 2008 and 2009. A comprehensive report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants can be found here, which points to lack of legal and government enforcement mechanisms as a key hurdle to addressing this serious human rights issue. That there is no reference to violence against African immigrants in this article is a surprising omission even when considering the word limit.

3. South Africa’s telephone system is “the best developed and most modern in Africa“. I lived in South Africa in 2009-2010 and worked in Khayelitsha (the largest township in the Cape Town area); the reach of cell phones to corners of the country where even running water and regular electricity are absent astounded me. Of course, the potentially transformative power that mobile phones hold for countries in Africa is a trendy topic in development and business fields. But the prevalence of cell phones in ZA combined with the fact that bystander footage is what sparked public outrage over this scandal prompted me to wonder whether citizen journalism is also making strides in the context of weak rule of law and lack of government accountability.  Interestingly, although I found a few more recent comments regarding NGOs that have initiated citizen journalism programs, the few academic or journalist endeavors encouraging the phenomenon are out of date. The lack of investment in the topic may have something to do with the fact that despite prevalent mobile phone usage, internet penetration in ZA is relatively low and costs for accessing the web are prohibitively expensive. It is one thing to text on a Nokia and quite another to be connected to a vast network like the Internet through a device. Further, limits to internet access are connected to socioeconomic status in South Africa as they are in many other countries.

4. Regular violence on the part of the SAPS is shocking. Last year, police opened fire at an illegal strike of mine workers, killing 34 in one of the worst death tolls in violent protests since Apartheid ended. It is difficult to fathom this degree of police brutality in a democracy, and speaks to larger issues about the lack of ability or will on the part of the government to do more to protect its citizens. Indeed, although the murder rate is falling according to official numbers, unofficially many South Africans do not believe the figures. Gun ownership is high, rape is incredibly common (one survey had 37.4% of men admitting to rape), and murders like that of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche in 2010 highlight the continued existence of race-inspired violence that still plagues the country.

5. The group was comprised of South African lawyers, activists, and other professionals concerned with corruption in South Africa. It had indicted several high-ranking officials in the African National Congress (the party that has been in power since 1994) and was dissolved by an ANC-dominated parliament after accusing President Jacob Zuma (now ANC and South African president) of corruption.  Since then, no independent corruption monitoring body has been reinstated.

6. Five senior criminal-justice posts have gone unfilled for more than a yearThe ANC’s corruption and laziness is blatant; police impunity is only one symptom of it. To many casual observers, ZA is Reading “Bad cop, bad cop routine” provides a first glimpse into some of the mounting issues that South Africa faces right now, but it fails to elucidate how this is both a product and cause of the government’s depressing failures that have resulted in corruption and ineptitude.