Explainer: The loopholes police use to protect their own

By Daneel Knoetze

11 May 2021

Picture design by Alex Noble with photo by Brenton Geach for Gallo Images

On 1 June 2014, a group of police officers in a rural Eastern Cape township were accused of beating a man so badly that they broke his ribs and ruptured his small intestine. Phindile Ramncwana, 52, died from his injuries a short while later. In spite of eyewitness statements describing the assault and evidence that some of the police officers were repeat offenders, police management did not fire any of the officers following a disciplinary hearing. All but one of them escaped sanction altogether.

A new investigation by Viewfinder reveals that SAPS’s failure to discipline these officers was the predictable consequence of South Africa’s broken police oversight mechanism.

That mechanism relies heavily on SAPS management’s enforcement of watchdog recommendations against officers accused of brutality. But loopholes in the laws and regulations governing police discipline allow senior police officers to protect, rather than discipline, their accused colleagues should they choose to do so.

According to officials from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) interviewed for this investigation, those loopholes are used with impunity. A data analysis by Viewfinder of the disciplinary outcomes of such cases supports that conclusion.

Police management’s ultimate control over these departmental processes explodes any notion that the country’s police watchdog is able to exercise “independent” police oversight in South Africa. The consequence is that problem officers, like those accused of murdering Phindile Ramncwana, are routinely left unpunished to become a scourge in the communities that they are supposed to serve.

Read the full story: How SAPS protects the killers within its ranks

This investigation was funded by the Henry Nxumalo Fund for Investigative Reporting, Luminate, Millennium Trust and GroundUp. This article was edited by GroundUp.