Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones – But Rubber Bullets?

There was a tense stand-off this week between police and a crowd of parents gathered at Roodepoort Primary School. Gauteng Premier David Makhura has closed the school, following a feud about the appointment of a new principal at the school. When buses came to take the students to other schools, some parents reportedly prevented the students from boarding the buses, saying that they would rather have the school re-opened or at the very least to have the students attend the nearest schools in the area – these being Witpoortjie or Discovery. However, what is crucial to the story is how the police reacted. The police response to the gathering of parents was to fire teargas and rubber bullets, allegedly injuring at least 5 people. One community member told Eyewitness News that two of the injured had been children. On Sunday, it has been three years since the Marikana massacre, and we have to ask ourselves whether our civil liberties are any safer in the hands of the police today.

Catholic social teaching promotes the physical welfare of the individual, recognising the inherent dignity of the human being who is made in the image of God. This dignity is ‘crushed underfoot’ when our physical integrity is not respected (Saint John Paul II, in an address to Latin American Bishops). South African law also values the physical integrity of the person, with section 12 of our Constitution protecting our rights to physical integrity. In addition, section 17 of the Constitution stipulates that we have a right to assemble and to demonstrate in a peaceful manner.

The authorities told Eyewitness News that they had no choice but to use teargas and rubber bullets after the protesting group allegedly threw stones at the buses. However, the law asks police officers to use discretion when using force to control crowds. Legislation stipulates that police officers shall only use the minimum force necessary when they are authorised to use force. Moreover, a standing order issued by the SAPS indicates that rubber bullets are to be used only in ‘extreme circumstances’ and only when less forceful methods have proven ineffective (Standing Order 262). Even if it was true that stones were thrown by enraged parents, can the police officers honestly say that there was nothing else they could have done to manage the crowd and to restore peace to the area, especially considering that the use of rubber bullets resulted in the hospitalisation of at least one person?

The right to physical integrity is guaranteed by our Constitution. As human beings created by God with inherent dignity, we should not have to suffer a violation of our physical integrity unless this was absolutely necessary considering the context. In response to angry parents throwing stones, the police could have been more creative in crowd control. Three years after Marikana, have we learnt anything about the value of life, the value of physical integrity and the importance of a non-violent and supportive police force?

Rev. Grant Tungay SJ

Fr Grant Tungay SJ is a lawyer by training, he left a career in law to join the Jesuits. He specialised in human rights law and has done volunteer work at the SA Human Rights Commission and also worked as an intern for the Centre of Applied Legal Studies at WITS. He worked at the Jesuit Institute South Africa for a few years in the area of social justice and is interested in the overlap between law, social justice and spirituality.
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