Rubber bullets kill! Systematic and urgent intervention needed in policing.

 In Member statements

On Wednesday, 10 March 2021, South African Police Services (SAPS) officers violently dispersed students who were protesting against the financial exclusion of students at the University of the Witwatersrand. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades and pursued students in Braamfontein, with the campus being closed off to protesting students, firing indiscriminately into crowds.

A number of other people were injured including a student reporter for the Voice of Wits Radio Station, Aphelele Buqwana, who was shot in the leg while covering the protest. Tragically, SAPS officers also shot and killed Mthokozisi Ntumba. As he was leaving a clinic, the police pulled up in a police vehicle and started firing at a group of people. One of the officers fired rubber bullets at Mr. Ntumba at close range. We are incredibly saddened by this loss of life and send our deepest condolences to the Ntumba family and his loved ones.

Since Wednesday, protests have continued around Wits University and at other campuses across the country as students once again make demands about access to higher education and free, quality and decolonised education. We are deeply disturbed by reports of police who have continued to respond to student protests with force and violence. On Monday, 15 March, another student was gravely injured when shot in the back of the knee, leaving a gaping wound. The student is currently awaiting surgery. It is unbelievable that just days after murdering Mthokozisi Ntumba, the police would again resort to such extreme measures to disperse protestors.

We note that following swift action by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), four officers suspected of being involved in the incident that led to the killing of Mr. Ntumba will appear in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. However, we urge IPID to investigate all other injuries that have occurred, as part of their mandate. We also note that, injuries from past student protests are yet to be fully investigated and accounted for.

The routine use of excessive use of force by police agencies in South Africa is fundamentally a systemic issue, of failed training, oversight and accountability processes. Ten years after the Marikana massacre and there is still no accountability. The continued misuse of force cannot be explained away as ‘bad apples’ or as officers who “just went crazy”, as the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele put it, outside of Mr. Ntumba’s home. Activists have consistently raised the heavy-handedness and violence of the police when dealing with protests, as a major concern which government has failed to address for many years.

Such behaviour has come under increasingly sharp focus during the COVID-19 lockdown, during which law enforcement bodies, including the SAPS, City of Cape Town law enforcement, other metropolitan police departments, and private security, have frequently resorted to excessive use of force and in particular, the misuse of rubber bullets.

On the first day of the lockdown in March 2020, a woman was shot in the face with a rubber bullet by security personnel while another was shot in the ear and in the arm while SAPS, SANDF and JMPD officials were nearby enforcing the lockdown. No-one has been brought to account for this unjustified use of force. Siyasanga Gijana, was fetching water near her home in the Ramaphosa informal settlement in Philippi, Cape Town in April 2020 when she was shot in the face and lost the use of an eye. More recently, in January 2021, 30 residents of the Rondvlei occupation and Xakabantu settlement in Cape Town were shot at with rubber bullets at close range by law enforcement officers accompanied by the Red Ants security guards who were effecting violent evictions, ordered by the City of Cape Town.

Far from using the rule of necessity and proportionality in policing protests and managing crowd situations, police have routinely resorted to using rubber bullets against groups of people who are peaceful or pose no immediate threat. The South African government is increasingly finding itself making promises, failing to meet those promises and then in response to the resultant dissent, legitimate protest and efforts by the poor to make ends meet, responding brutally, with little regard for human life and dignity.

The affinity for using rubber bullets by SAPS is contrary to the global shift away from this weapon and is at odds with South African and international human rights law. This is precisely because of the weapon’s inaccuracy, indiscriminate nature when fired at long distances, capability of inflicting serious injuries and being lethal when used at close range.

Following the killing of Andries Tatane (noting that 11th April will be the 10th anniversary of his death), police were instructed in early 2012 to stop “the use of rubber bullets and bird-shot”. Indeed, SAPS Standing Order 262 and National Instruction 4 of 2014 explicitly state that rubber bullets should only be used as a last resort, after other less forceful measures have been exhausted and only in extreme circumstances. Recently, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Resolution 474 reaffirmed calls for state parties to the African Charter to “ensure that the use of force by Law Enforcement and Public Security Forces is consistent with the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability and do not endanger human life”.

In light of the above, it should be clear that the crisis in public order policing in South Africa must be urgently addressed as a systemic issue and not be responded to haphazardly when there is public outrage. We need full accountability for all violations of people’s rights to freedom of assembly as protected under international and South African human rights law. In this respect, there should be serious consideration given to the adoption of a dedicated law on the use of force. The current piecemeal approach only serves to exacerbate the systemic problems. South Africa needs a law that applies to everyone who performs law enforcement functions.

The frequency of the police poorly managing protests, other crowd incidents and the rapid resort to excessive (and often lethal) force highlights a government failure to ensure law enforcement agencies are properly trained and held fully accountable. How many more people have to be injured, maimed and killed by rubber bullets and other less lethal weapons before we take a stand against them?

In response to the misuse of less-lethal weapons and excessive use of force against protestors, the C-19 People’s Coalition Anti-Repression Working Group makes the following immediate demands:

• That all police officers and other security personnel whose use of force has resulted in injuries during student and community protests be immediately suspended pending investigations into the lawfulness of the force used.

• That IPID fully investigates all instances relating to the use of force by the police, in addition to the unlawful killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba.

• That the Marikana Expert Panel Report, which looked into public order policing in South Africa in the wake of large-scale deaths at Marikana, be publicly released without delay.

• For an immediate ban on the use of rubber bullets in crowd management incidents, noting the importance of regular testing and legal review of any weapon used in policing, including research on existing patterns of use.

Issued by the Anti-Repression Working Group of the C19PC

For comment, please contact:
Thato Masiangoako,, 0781072083
Tauriq Jenkins,, 0647342569

The Anti-Repression Working Group of the C-19 People’s Coalition has developed a set of infographics with the purpose of equipping members of the public and the media with facts around the less-lethal weapons frequently used by the South African police, how they are supposed to be used lawfully and the risks associated with their misuse. The infographics also include information to assist people to identify weapons used and unlawful conduct, as well as guidance on how to document the misuse of weapons and the injuries sustained as a result.

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