Police’s excessive use of rubber bullets in situations of public order policing in the spotlight

The lack of proper regulations and better control of the use of rubber bullets in public order policing situations is once again in the spotlight. This follows the recent acquittal of four South African Police Service (SAPS) members, who were charged with the 2021 killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba.

Ntumba died after being shot with rubber bullets while leaving a clinic in Braamfontein.

The Institute for Security Studies says Ntumba’s death forms part of a history of indiscriminate, reckless, and excessive use of rubber bullets by the SAPS.

Many people bear the scars of police rubber bullets. They survived to tell the tale.

However, Andries Tatane and Mthokozisi Ntumba were some of those who were not so lucky. They died at the hands of the police.

According to David Bruce, an independent researcher and consultant with the Institute for Security Studies, Ntumba’s case amplifies SAPS impunity.

“A critical issue is that rubber bullets are potentially lethal. They are more likely to kill a person if they are fired at short range and targetted at the head or upper body. Some police members seem to think that they are fairly harmless for instance during the recent trial, there are some police who said that rubber bullets can’t kill. These police officers are obviously poorly informed.”

In the video below, the last moments of Mthokozisi Ntumba are detailed in the South Gauteng High Court: 

Solving cases

Investigations around the use of rubber bullets are difficult to solve because they can’t be linked to the exact firearm. A spokesperson for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, Lizzy Suping, says for the previous financial year, 830 cases involving the discharge of an official firearm were registered.

Nearly 180 of these involved rubber bullets.

“27 cases completed and decision-ready. As IPID we normally make police recommendations to SAPS and MPS. We advise them to develop strategies that guide how officials should conduct themselves when dispersing crowds.”

Bruce says despite the recommendations of the 2016 report by a panel of experts, which was commissioned following the 2012 Marikana shootings – SAPS still does not adequately control the use of rubber bullets or enforce proper accountability for their use.

“The minister finally released the report last year, a few weeks after Ntokozizi Ntumba was killed by the police. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any sign as yet that there has been proper engagement by the police, of the panel report. One key point here is that the report recommended that there should be clear regulations regarding the use of rubber bullets, and no such regulations have been introduced.”

Despite repeated attempts, SAPS did not respond to questions submitted to them.

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