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Police in South Africa Struggle to Gain Trust After Apartheid

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The New York Times

AUG. 13, 2016

ALEXANDRA, South Africa — During apartheid, the government wielded the police like a club, using them to keep black South Africans in check and brutally extinguish any dissent.

In impoverished black townships like Alexandra, the enmity between the police and black South Africans was so bad in the mid-1980s that residents chased away black police officers who lived in the township by burning down their family homes.

But with the end of apartheid in 1994, change came quickly. The local police force here got its first black commander. Now, all but a handful of the Alexandra police station’s officers are black, and many live in the community. Police stations are no longer redoubts with gates and guards who restrict entry.

“Now when people want to come in, they just come in anytime,” said Col. Nhluvuko Zondi, who became a police officer in 1987 and the station’s first black female commander last year.

It took her five years after the end of apartheid to start feeling comfortable with the public. “Now I can go anywhere with my uniform,” she added.

But the story does not end there. The transformation of South Africa’s police force, from the enforcer of white-minority rule to an institution controlled by the black majority, has been painful and increasingly violent.

In the United States, the killings of black Americans by white police officers — and the killings of police officers by black men in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La. — have convulsed the country, revealing a deep racial chasm around policing in America.

Perhaps no other country understands that discord as well as South Africa, or has done as much to overcome it. But as South Africa has learned, race is hardly the only obstacle to good relations between the police and the people.

Corruption, poverty and the continued use of deadly force, especially in the nation’s townships, are fueling distrust and division, too.

Today, South Africa’s police force — especially its most visible faces, its top leaders and patrol officers — mirrors a population that is 80 percent black. But relations remain particularly fraught between the police and poor, black communities like Alexandra. Longtime residents acknowledge notable improvements in ties over the years. But many are also quick to think the worst of officers.

“Under apartheid, when you see the police, you have to run away,” said David Khumalo, 60. “Now we can sit down and talk to the police, tell them about hot spots.”

But Mr. Khumalo does not trust all police officers. “Maybe 70 percent,” he said with a grin. “Ten years ago? Forty percent. So there’s a slow improvement.”

For citizens and police officers alike, South Africa is a more dangerous place than the United States. Its population is much smaller, but by most estimates, South African officers are killed at higher rates than their American counterparts. Likewise, South Africans are killed by the police at higher rates.

In Alexandra, a poor South African community where the population is nearly all black, the police force is also nearly all black. But many residents are still quick to think the worst of officers. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

And while the police in South Africa have changed since apartheid, the people typically killed by them have not.

“Basically, they are still overwhelmingly black men,” said David Bruce, an expert on South Africa’s police force. “The police aren’t killing more white people. There’s no White Lives Matter campaign in South Africa.”

Under apartheid, white senior officers controlled the South African Police Service, and patrol officers were evenly divided, white and black. By 1995, a year after apartheid, whites were still vastly overrepresented, making up 36 percent of the South African force, according to research by Mr. Bruce. (Whites accounted for 11 percent of the population in the 1996 census.)

Policies to change the force’s racial complexion were carried out aggressively, including offering generous severance packages to senior officials, Mr. Bruce said. Then, as increasing crime led to a major recruitment drive last decade, the force’s overall racial breakdown came to more closely match South Africa’s.

According to the latest police figures, blacks make up 76 percent of the force, with whites accounting for 11 percent. In the 2011 census, blacks totaled 79 percent of South Africa’s population and whites 9 percent.

After apartheid, there was also a push to create a police force with respect for human rights, said Antony Altbeker, an expert on crime at the Center for Development and Enterprise in Johannesburg.

But in the past decade, as crime has continued to rise, tough-on-crime messages, including some speaking approvingly of lethal force by the police, have come to dominate, Mr. Altbeker said. A government watchdog on police abuse is regarded by most experts as toothless.

South Africa has responded to crime by beefing up its national police force to 194,000, a 60 percent increase from 121,000 in 2002.

Richard Mamabolo, a spokesman for the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, the largest union for police officers, said the increase had failed to address the reasons behind crime, like poverty, a lack of opportunity and income inequality, one of the world’s widest.

Police violence, once directed by the apartheid police against blacks, is now directed at the poor, who are still overwhelmingly black, Mr. Mamabolo said.

“Police react differently to two conditions,” he said. In poorer areas, “there would be more force used,” he said. But the police are more restrained in areas with whites and wealthier blacks, he added, “where you have people who have money and the use of lawyers” and “you know you can get into trouble.”

Some critics went further. If police officers were once the agents of state repression under apartheid, they are now defenders of a status quo dominated by white business and a black elite connected to an increasingly corrupt African National Congress, they contend. Many point to the 2012 massacre in Marikana, where more than 40 striking miners were killed by the police.

“We’ve come full circle,” said the Rev. Xola Skosana, a pastor in Khayelitsha, a township near Cape Town.

In Alexandra, where the population of 180,000 is nearly all black, Colonel Zondi’s 342-strong force is also nearly all black.

A woman selling vegetables in Alexandra, a township that is a maze of narrow streets and densely inhabited settlements. For years after apartheid, the police were still unwelcome in much of Alexandra, activists said. Credit JoIn Alexandra, where the population of 180,000 is nearly all black, Colonel Zondi’s 342-strong force is also nearly all black.

Neat streets dotted with modest public houses can be found in the township’s new areas. But old Alex, as it is called, is a maze of narrow streets and densely inhabited settlements. According to the 2011 census, only 39 percent of residents lived in homes with piped water.

For years after apartheid, the police were still unwelcome in much of Alexandra, activists said. With crime rampant, residents organized a patrol group, called Section Four, that operated for 10 years.

“We could go into areas that the police never dared to,” said Bulldog Rathokolo, a resident.

At the urging of activists, Alexandra’s police station got its first black commander a couple years after the end of apartheid.

“It was very important to phase the police into the community,” said Thabo Mokhine, a longtime activist.

In Alexandra, perceptions of the police are still often negative. As in many African nations, they are widely regarded as protecting the strong and preying on the weak. Residents argue that criminals work freely by paying off officers.

“If you are a victim, you have nowhere to run,” Mhlaliseni Gabela, 29, said from behind the wall surrounding his house. “That’s why crime is everywhere.”

Colonel Zondi acknowledged that 10 percent of her force could be corrupt. “I’m not going to run away from that one,” she said.

Officers, she said, earn good middle-class salaries that allow them to buy houses and cars. Her entry-level officers earn $10,700 a year; those with 12 years on the job make $13,000, the maximum for a patrol officer.

Colonel Zondi blamed greed for corruption, adding, “They want a BMW, which I’m driving, so they start taking bribes.”

But she said the public perception of corruption was exaggerated. A suspect is arrested and released on bail, she said, but locals reflexively believe that an officer must have pocketed a bribe to let the suspect go.

Zakes Mbonani, 47, a leader of the M1 hostel, a dormitory-like public housing development, said relations with the police had improved greatly. Still, he trusted only “63 percent” of police officers.

The rest, he said, were corrupt or did not show respect, especially to the poorest in Alexandra, including the 6,000 residents of his hostel. Officers, he said, regard the hostel the way they did all of Alexandra during apartheid.

“They’re afraid to come to the hostel,” he said. “I don’t know why. This is also Alexandra.”

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