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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The South African Police: Managers of conflict or party to the conflict

Seminar No. 1, 1991

Presenter: Dr Johan Olivier

Johan Olivier is a Researcher at the Centre for Conflict Analysis at the Human Sciences Research Council.

The SAP: Party to the conflict

A recent study (Olivier 1989b & 1990), which covered the period 1970-1984 in the PWV area, paid particular attention to the consequences of police action at events of collective action.

This study investigated, amongst other things, the effects of police action at 657 events of collective action on the subsequent rate of collective action. Police action was measured at five levels

Ø     No police presence

Ø     A minimal level of interaction which includes the putting up of roadblocks or asking participants to disperse

Ø     Physical contact between participants and the police with any number of arrests made, and

Ø     Police opened fire on protesters with rubber bullets, teargas and/or live ammunition and killed or wounded any number of participants.

The results suggest that the police actually contributed to the escalation of the unrest. The mere presence of police at events of collective action increased the subsequent rate of collective action by 68% over events where police were not present. When police opened fire on protesters, the subsequent rate of collective action increased by 107%.

What explains this dynamic? Few people will differ from me when I say that the South African Police has been, and to a large extent still are, political agents of a white minority government. They had to enforce unpopular pieces of legislation over a long period of time which brought them into constant contact with large proportions of the South African population, particularly members of the black communities.9 These laws include the pass laws, land laws, forced removals, colour bars, the migrant labour system, and measures under states of emergencies. These measures are, in Wilson and Ramphele's (1989) view, the major components of a systematic assault by the state on the poor.

Large numbers of people were detained under security legislation since the early sixties. During these contacts situations developed which were not favourable for the way in which the police are viewed by particularly members of the black communities. Different levels of physical violence developed frequently during these contacts which resulted in many deaths and injuries.

According to the Human Rights Committee (HRC) (1990) over 200 people have been killed and over 2 000 injured, either directly or indirectly, as a result of police action against gatherings for which permission was refused, or which occurred spontaneously, between 2 February and August 1990. Virtually all of these gatherings were for the purpose of expressing legitimate grievances around the issues of housing, education, health services and infrastructure.

In his study of detentions in South Africa, Foster (1987) refers to the physical and psychological process of detention.10 Such a process starts with the actual arrest and covers conditions of confinement and interrogation, and includes also the effects of such conditions. He argues that the package of laws under which people are detained is "...used as a form of political and psychological violence..." (Foster 1987:5). Detention under South Africa's security legislation is, according to Foster, above all a political act. He found that at least 70 000 people have been detained without trial since the 1960s.11 His results showed that of the 175 people in his sample (all held under security detention), 145 suffered from some form of torture. In fact, his results led him to conclude that torture, in terms of both physical and psychological abuse, is a relatively standard procedure in South African prisons.

At least 74 people died while in detention during the period 1963 to 1985, some under questionable circumstances.12 Official explanations of these deaths varied from natural causes, suicide, injuries, suffocation, falling from windows, to death due to torture. In some cases no reasons were disclosed (Meli 1988). Steve Biko, who died of massive head injuries on 12 September 1977, and Neil Aggett, who was found hanged in his cell on 5 February 1982, are well-known cases.

My research also investigated the effects of detentions on levels of collective action during the period 1970-1984 (Olivier 1989b). By removing the leaders from the community, the state would argue, levels of protest should decline. My results suggest otherwise.

As in the case of police action at events of collective action, I investigated the effects of detentions on levels of collective action subsequent to the detentions. As the number of people in detention increased from its lowest to its highest level during the 1970-84 period, the subsequent level of collective action increased seven times.

What explains this dynamic? One possible explanation is that those who were detained were replaced by less skilled leaders who had less control over their followers. This view is supported by the results of Jochelson's (1990) study of Alexandra.


These results show that actions by the state and its agents which were devised to curb the incidence of civil unrest did not have the desired effects. It was suggested that the high degree to which police activities had been politicised partially explains this dynamic.

Recent months saw a number of changes in legislation and policy which will contribute to the depoliticisation of the police force. A truly impartial police force, and one which is viewed by the people as such, is still an ideal. It should also be recognised that the legacy of apartheid will last for many years after its demise.

During his 1990 Christmas and New Year's address, President de Klerk had the following to say on violence:

No-one has the right to use violence against others to advance their political objectives. Those who have political differences should resolve them through negotiations.13

This, in my view, applies as much to the state as it applies to any other organisation or individual. Violence committed by any individual, structure or body is unacceptable and has no place in any democratic society. Who then has the responsibility for curbing violence in society? Allow me to answer this question in the context of protest activities.

Protest activity, within certain limits, only became an acceptable practice in South Africa during 1989. It can therefore be said that South Africans are, to a large extent, new to protest. This is true for protesters who air their grievances on any of a variety of social issues, and for the state. This new situation calls for a redefinition of the responsibilities of all parties involved.

In his evidence before the Goldstone Commission of Enquiry into the events at Sebokeng in March 1990, Colonel van der Merwe pointed out that the police are in a learning phase in respect of mass demonstrations (Goldstone 1990). The same is true for the organisers of mass demonstrations - a situation which places responsibilities on all parties.

Both the state and organisers of protest activities share the responsibility for preventing violence. However, as pointed out above, the state has a monopoly over the use of the tools of violence. This fact places a greater responsibility on the state to ensure that it, and its agents, act with restraint.

Any democratic government should realise that while it has a monopoly over the use of violence, it is in power only by the grace of its citizens. Accordingly the government should recognise that its task is not to govern the people, rather its task is to govern on behalf of the people.


1 See Lewis (1972); Adamek and Lewis (1973).

2 See Time, 19 June 1989.

3 See Time, 22 October 1990; The Economist, 13 October 1990.

4 According to the findings of a commission of enquiry into this incident, twenty people died as a result of police action (Kannemeyer, 1985).

5 See Harris (1988).

6 See Goldstone (1990)

7 See also Garver (1970).

8 See also Tilly et al (1975).

9 I use the term "black" in its broadest definition to include Africans, Indians and members of the so-called "coloured" community.

10 See also Riekert (1985).

11 The Human Rights Commission (1990) put this figure at nearly 80 000. Two-thirds of these detentions have occurred in the last 5 years.

12 Van der Vyver (1988) points out that since the inception of detention without trial, more political detainees have died while in detention than the total number of civilians who lost their lives as a result of urban terrorism.

13 Message by the State President, Mr F W de Klerk, 18 December 1990.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.