South Africa News

No misconduct found in Bellville Sassa water cannon incident

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) could not find fault with the police’s actions when they used a water cannon to disperse frustrated Sassa grant recipients in Bellville on 15 January.

IPID found that the police used minimum force to get the grant recipients to practise social distancing in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19.

They were within their operational rights to enforce Covid-19 regulations.

According to the IPID report, the manager of the Bellville Sassa office said officials called the police for help earlier that day after they battled for days to get the grant recipients to comply with the regulations.

The police arrived but apparently, the crowd still didn’t heed warnings.

It was escalated to the Public Order Police (POP), who warned the people again.

After not heeding that call, an officer in the water cannon vehicle was ordered to take action.

The police told IPID that the options of using a pepper or capsicum spray, firearms, rubber bullets, and teargas were at their disposal but would have been inappropriate.

The report noted: “The above measures would not have been appropriate to manage the crowd at the Bellville [Sassa] on the day in question, hence less forceful measures were applied.”

Community Safety MEC Albert Fritz asked IPID to investigate the incident.

On the day in question, alarmed that people were not applying the 1.5m social distancing rule during the Covid-19 pandemic, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu climbed into an armoured vehicle and used the public address system to ask people to spread out.

Later in the day, while she was in discussions with Sassa officials inside the building, jets of water from the water cannon were sprayed on people to force them to stand apart, eliciting outrage over the treatment of vulnerable people.

Before going into the findings, IPID explained that the acting provincial police commissioner, Major General Mpumuelo Manci, did not give the “substantive details” that Fritz requested.

It was also not clear why Sassa officials could not ensure compliance themselves or why there were such long queues.

This is what IPID pieced together:

  • Sassa officials called the police because their security could not cope with the large groups of people who were not social distancing.
  • Bellville police attended to the complaint.
  • Due to a lack of cooperation, the POP were asked for help.
  • The POP scene commander warned the group of people to practise social distancing and disperse.
  • When they failed to do so, a constable in the water cannon vehicle was ordered to spray water in the air to get people to social distance in line with the Disaster Management Act.
  • The constable aimed the water in the air and sprayed it for two seconds.
  • The POP scene commander said disabled applicants had already been attended to when the water cannon was used and were not part of the “disorderly group” that refused to disperse.

The documents IPID used included:

  • A copy of Use of Force and Torture: Guidelines on the implementation and enforcement of regulations and directives issued in terms of Section 27 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA): Containment and management of Covid-19 National Commissioner Circular dated 19 May 2020;
  • Riot Control Vehicle, Water Cannon operation and maintenance manual; SAPS Crime Combating Forum Supplementary Instruction on Containment and Management of Covid-19 in terms of the DMA that confirms the duties of law enforcement officers;
  • National Instruction 4 of 2014 (Crowd Control Prescript) on National Commissioner circular, dated 15 May 2020 which confirms that SA Police Service Officers can enforce compliance with Covid-19 regulations “to ensure that lives are saved”.

IPID noted that DMA protocols made it compulsory for people to wear masks in public places compulsory or when queueing inside or outside, and for people have to ensure that they keep 1.5m away from others.

It found there was nothing wrong with Sassa to ask another SAPS for assistance, especially if the situation posed a risk to lives.

The directorate also found that the police officers fulfilled their duties in terms of the law, that they did not commit misconduct, and that the police used their resources to disperse people, to ensure social distancing, and to prevent the blocking of traffic in the road.

It said there were no reported injuries and that no member of the public lodged a complaint with them.

“In the premise, there is no misconduct committed by any member of SAPS who responded and attended the SAPS complaint on 15 January 2020. SAPS acted within the prescripts of the law,” the report stated.

In response, Fritz issued a statement saying he was disappointed by the finding.

“We all saw the videos. Water cannons were used on Sassa beneficiaries waiting in a queue outside. We also see protests on a daily basis in our country where crowds are far more unruly than the crowd outside of Sassa on that day, and water cannons are not used on the unruly crowds. So there is the question of inconsistency,” he said.

“On a more fundamental level, though, what kind of society uses state resources to treat vulnerable people; Sassa beneficiaries, like this? The IPID report seems to show that our state institutions allow for this. Is this the kind of society we are?”

-The Citizen

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