Columns 21.12.2017 06:43 am

Why use force in a democracy?

A journalist at the ANC conference. Image: Twitter

A journalist at the ANC conference. Image: Twitter

Could it be that the men and women charged with keeping the conference secure shared President Jacob Zuma’s sentiment that the media is often the enemy?

Disturbing videos and anecdotes coming out of the ANC’s 54th national conference about the treatment of journalists were disappointing, but not very surprising to any South African journalist who has had to deal with security officials “protecting” high-level politicians.

Besides what it says about the culture of animosity towards media that is seemingly entrenched by certain government officials and politicians, it also spoke to the culture of excessive force that is rampant in police officers and other security personnel in South Africa.

Several examples come to mind, including the violent clashes between #FeesMustFall activists and police, the Marikana massacre, as well as the heart-breaking story of Andries Tatane, the 33-year-old man who died after being shot at close range by police officers during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in 2013.

These events raised many questions about the quality of training acquired by people hired to serve and protect citizens at various levels, especially during large gatherings.

It is disheartening that in 2017 you fear for your own safety when encountering a security officer or a police officer in a crowd.

Of the more than 200 journalists who spent the last five days in a haze of press briefings, walkabouts and open sessions, several have spoken out about the excessive and possibly unlawful manner in which security marshals and the police carried out their duties.

A video doing the rounds depicts a security official near the plenary hall, who has now turned out to be an officer in the South African Police Service, using excessive force by shoving Bloomberg journalist Sam Mkokeli against a wire fence.

In the video, the journalist has his hands in the air as he repeatedly asks where he was being taken to and why.

His sin was apparently complaining that he and other journalists had been waiting for nearly an hour in the blistering sun for newly-elected ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa to address them.

The moment succinctly epitomises both the widely documented lack of respect that journalists routinely endure at the hands of public figures in government, as well as the endemic culture of senseless violence in our society.

It would be remiss to discuss excessive force by security personnel and police without also interrogating the link between publicised sentiments of politically powerful officials and the inherent actions of the officers they command.

During an address over the weekend, President Jacob Zuma lamented what he perceived to be hostility towards himself and the ANC by the media.

Could it be, perhaps, that the men and women charged with keeping the conference secure shared the same sentiment, that the media is often the enemy?

During the #FeesMustFall demonstrations countrywide even students who were unarmed and had not damaged property, were still dispersed violently.

It was no secret that the movement did not sit well with government, with Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande once reportedly quipping “students must fall”.

Such excessive force often begs the question whether these officers were influenced by their superiors. If this is the case, it is a serious indictment on the state of democracy in South Africa.

ANC conference calls for improvement of police officers to citizens ratio

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