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South African police, a force in turmoil

Friday - 3/1/2013, 5:04am  ET

FILE - In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 Police surround the bodies of striking miners after opening fire on a crowd at the Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa. The state of South Africa’s police forces came into sharp focus last week during Pistorius' bail hearing where police stumbled and fumbled in the bail hearing of Pistorius who is charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The judicial system and its ruthless police force was the backbone of the racist Apartheid system. Now, almost two decades after Mandela ended the all-white regime in 1994, this system is creaking under corruption and mismanagement. (AP Photo/File)

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- The job of the South African police is to fight one of the highest crime rates in the world. Instead, the force stands accused of contributing to it.

On Thursday, the release of a video showing uniformed police binding a taxi driver to the back of a police vehicle and dragging him -- the man was later found dead in a police cell -- shocked South Africans long accustomed to stories of police misconduct.

At a bail hearing for Oscar Pistorius last week, a magistrate harshly criticized a police detective for shoddy work in the investigation into the murder case against the double-amputee athlete, who is charged with killing his girlfriend. And last year, police fired into a crowd of striking miners, killing 34 in a convulsion of violence that reminded many of the worst excesses of the apartheid era.

These high-profile episodes cap a steady flow of allegations of police misconduct, whether in top rank corruption, prosecutions of officers charged with murder and rape, or numerous anecdotes of police pulling over drivers and demanding bribes. Many South Africans mistrust the very institution that is supposed to protect them, and the scandals weaken efforts by South Africa to project itself as a model country and a leader by example in sub-Saharan Africa.

"They are there for safety, but we as a people fear them more," said Alfonso Adams, a resident of Johannesburg. "You don't know who to trust anymore."

The Daily Sun, a South African newspaper, posted footage of the dragging incident, which occurred Tuesday and was apparently filmed by several people using cellular telephones. By some accounts, taxi driver Mido Macia, 27, of Mozambique drew the attention of police when he parked in a way that blocked traffic, and then got into an altercation with officers.

"We are going to film this," several onlookers shouted in Zulu as the police roughly subdued Macia. One bystander can be heard shouting: "What has this guy done?"

It remains to be seen whether the succession of scandals will trigger such a groundswell of public outrage that the government will push through reforms to the troubled police. Rape has been a scourge of South African society for many years, but sexual violence remains endemic despite periodic outcries. In the case of the taxi driver who was dragged behind a police van, officers paid little heed to the crowd that gathered, suggesting a sense of impunity has taken hold in police ranks.

President Jacob Zuma condemned the killing of Macia, who died from head and other injuries after he was dragged in Daveyton, a township east of Johannesburg. Some commentators drew comparisons with the 1977 death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who also suffered head injuries in police custody.

"Members of the South African police service are required to operate within the confines of the law in executing their duties," Zuma said in a statement. "The visuals of the incident are horrific, disturbing and unacceptable. No human being should be treated in that manner."

Brig. Phuti Setati, a police spokesman, told South Africa's Radio 702 on Thursday afternoon that no police had yet been suspended, but said all crimes should be investigated, "irrespective of who is involved."

Johan Burger, a former police veteran and a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said the force rapidly expanded from 120,000 to almost 200,000 over the past decade, largely neglecting the quality of personnel that it recruited. Two police chiefs lost their jobs; one was Jackie Selebi, given a 15-year prison sentence for corruption after he went shopping with a drug smuggler in exchange for information. Selebi was later released on medical grounds.

"It is a crisis that starts at the top and filters down and it has a huge impact on morale of police on the ground," Burger said, adding that reforms to the police would be a hard, lengthy process.

"It is like trying to fix a runaway bus going downhill," he said.

Police said National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega planned to hold a news conference on the dragging incident on Friday morning. She was brought in to lead the police as an outsider with a social science and business background, and is the first woman to lead the force.

She removed chief investigator Hilton Botha in the Pistorius case after he made a number of errors in the investigation, and after it was revealed that he faced attempted murder charges stemming from a 2011 incident in which he and two other officers allegedly shot at a minivan while trying to stop it.

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