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Murders down, killings by police up in South Africa

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Watched by a gathering crowd, two police officers argue with a man in a T-shirt and jeans on Empilweni Street in Daveyton, a rough township east of Johannesburg, South Africa.

When the policemen try to arrest him, the man resists. Three colleagues join in and wrestle him to the ground. They tie his hands to the back of a police van and try to drive off, but the man’s feet and backside on the road impede them. Two officers lift his body to let the vehicle gather speed, dragging the screaming man behind it.

Two hours after the start of his ordeal, Mido Macia, a 27-year-old taxi driver from Mozambique, lay dead in a police cell. Cell-telephone footage of his ill treatment has drawn attention to the lack of discipline and the brutality of the South African Police Service. As a result of a furor in the press, eight officers face charges.

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega tried to play down the incident, saying, "What is in the video is not how the SAPS in a democratic South Africa goes about its work."

Official figures tell a different story, however. Last year 720 people died in police custody or because of police action. Deaths involving the police have risen since 2005, while the number of reported murders has been falling, although South Africa still has one of the highest rates in the world. A commission of inquiry into the deaths last August of 34 miners at the hands of policemen has yet to report.

The police have never been trusted much in black townships such as Daveyton. During the apartheid era they were seen as the enforcers of a racist regime. Since then the proportion of whites in the police has shrunk to 12 percent of the total, but the SAPS still lacks authority.

Two-thirds of South Africans think the most corrupt officials are in the police. The force is known for playing by its own rules. Officers encountering the worst criminals should "shoot the bastards," a police minister said in 2009.

Ill-discipline in the ranks has scarcely been helped by disarray at the top. Phiyega, with no prior experience of policing, was given the top job in June after the previous commissioner, Bheki Cele, was sacked by President Jacob Zuma amid allegations of corruption. Cele’s predecessor was jailed for 15 years for taking bribes. A special anti-corruption unit known as the Scorpions was disbanded in 2008 despite, or perhaps because of, its success.

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition to the ruling African National Congress, has published a list of five senior criminal-justice posts that have gone unfilled for more than a year. One reason for this sense of drift is that too many important ANC officials have been implicated in serious crimes and are reluctant to improve the performance of the police, at whatever level.

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