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Nyar, Annsilla (2006) Another SAPS Tragedy. Eye on Civil Society : -.

The recent tragedy of David “Chippa” Mateane, the policeman who shot and killed eight people and who was then himself killed by fellow policeman, puts the issue of our overburdened and much-maligned police force in the spotlight.

Chippa Mateane is being called the “killer officer”. One newspaper headline yelled “crazed cop”. Sadly he will never be remembered as anything else, and will forever remain yet another grim statistic in the parade of SAPS casualties. Only days ago, this tragedy unfolded when Chippa shot and killed his girlfriend Matshidiso “Poppie” Mosia, her daughter Lerato Mosia, her one year old grandchild Lebo Mosia and her teenage niece Dineo Moabi. Later, he made arrangements to meet four of his colleagues at a police station in Kagiso where he shot and killed them. In the ensuing gun battle, Chippa himself was shot dead.

Research from the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) cites three categories of killing of police. The first relates to killings during the course of duty. Category two cites killings when police are killed whether on or off duty due to work, such as when policemen are targeted for their involvement in particular cases. The last category relates to killings in domestic or recreational circumstances, such as where police officers are involved in disputes or arguments. The latter is the category to which Chippa Mateane belongs.

No one will ever be able to tell the complex set of personal and professional factors which influenced this train of tragic events and initiated this policeman’s killing spree. Nonetheless, these killings remain a devastating reflection of society’s own failings back at us. We hand our police the responsibility for safeguarding us from crime and lawlessness. Yet there are serious costs for this, which are never fully appreciated or even understood. Unfortunately when we hear of yet another incident of police misconduct, whether on or off duty, cynicism is the likely reaction.

Granted, the picture is murky in South Africa. We are bombarded on a regular basis with evidence of police misdeeds and criminality, such as racism, corruption and brutality. Our historical memory is long, and we recall the apartheid era when police were viewed as sellouts and public enemy number one. Indeed the most irreparable damage to the SAPS public image happened through the 1998 case of four policemen from the East rand dog handling unit who set their dogs on three Mozambican immigrants. We shuddered in horror and revulsion and national memory hearkened back to apartheid days when police dogs were routinely set upon black people for infringements of apartheid laws. It is hard not to feel that the more things change, the more they actually stay the same.

This generalized lack of faith in the police has developed into open conflict in the context of the burning issue of service delivery. The state has allocated police the role of foot soldier in the ‘law and order’campaign to enforce neo-liberal policies upon poor communities who are unable to afford basic services such as water and electricity.
It is hard to forget the death of young Michael Makhabane in a student demonstration at the University of Durban-Westville in 2000. Nor the more recent death of teenage Teboho Mkhonza when police opened fire on demonstrators blocking the N3 outside Harrismith. Or the torture of activists from the Landless People’s Movement (LPM).

How do we trust people who enforce evictions and water and electricity disconnections upon poor people at the point of a gun? How do we retain faith in a trigger-happy force which does not hesitate to kill and injure innocent folks demanding their basic rights as citizens of the ‘new’ South Africa?

But this isn’t the full story. That’s only part of the story. Unfortunately what is reflected back to society comes mostly in the form of those headlines yelling crazed killer cop. The stories of people like Chippa Mateane tend to fall irretrievably between the cracks of an increasingly dehumanized society. After all, he was just another cop who lost his head and massacred a number of people. Cops are prone to doing things like that. This line of thinking needs to change, because there is another side to the role of the police in South Africa.

Unfortunately the police are not all like the idealistic Inspector Du Plessis in SABC 3’s Isidingo, who somehow always manages to stay intact even when his personal and professional life is in shambles. Policing is a hard business, with a level of trauma and stress that goes far beyond the experience of ordinary citizens. It is generally assumed to be one of the world’s most stressful occupations. Police officers regularly undergo a physical and psychologically battering from their constant interaction with both the victims and perpetrators of crime and their exposure to various forms of trauma such as dead bodies and car accidents. There are high rates of suicide amongst the police as their coping reserves are steadily depleted by the course of work. Similarly the families of police officers suffer

What we are seeing is a system slowly disintegrating at the seams, with the cracks and fissures becoming ever more apparent. The mental health professionals are currently trying to hold back a tide.

Transformation of the SAPS is an absolute imperative. This is a massive and ongoing task, which involves a complex set of challenges at multiple levels. Improved stress and trauma management training is certainly one of those challenges. No doubt the SAPS has made strides toward development that are not insignificant. Police-community relationships have undergone great improvement with the advent of community policing forums.

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