Soon after the lockdown began, military commanders gave a directive to Charlie Company of 21 Infantry Battalion as it patrolled the streets of Alexandra, an impoverished black community in Johannesburg.
“Find, fix and neutralize the non-compliers,” the directive ordered. “Allow harsh measures of the law to take course.”
A few days later, on Good Friday, soldiers and police arrived at the home of Collins Khosa, a 40-year-old man in Alexandra who was allegedly drinking alcohol in violation of lockdown rules. Within hours, he was dead – the victim of a brutal assault and torture by soldiers as police watched.
The death of Mr. Khosa has gained the same notoriety in South Africa as the death of George Floyd in the United States. Both have become symbols of deadly excesses by law enforcers – a pattern of abuses that has persisted for decades.
While the death of Mr. Floyd has sparked a wave of protests that has convulsed cities across the United States, the death of Mr. Khosa has become a cause célèbre in South Africa for a different reason: It led to a landmark court ruling for the Khosa family, forcing the government to issue codes of conduct to restrain the country’s security forces.
The two cases are linked in another way. The widespread African condemnation of Mr. Floyd’s death has provoked questions about why African governments have tolerated similar abuses by their own security forces.
Many African politicians were quick to denounce the United States after Mr. Floyd’s death. The head of the African Union Commission said the “murder” of Mr. Floyd was an example of “continuing discriminatory practices.” The South African government voiced concern about “violence against defenceless black people and other minorities in America.” South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, complained that African-Americans were being “routinely slaughtered.” Government leaders in Ghana and Namibia also criticized the U.S. police.
But critics accuse African governments of neglecting the victims of security forces in their own countries. Hundreds of deaths have been documented in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and other African countries in recent years – including dozens during the lockdowns and curfews that were imposed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protesters this week in African cities – in Nairobi, Lagos and Cape Town – have made the connection between Mr. Floyd’s death and similar abuses by African governments. Kenyans demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi with signs reading “Stop extrajudicial killings” and “Black lives matter,” while South Africans protesting outside their Parliament demanded justice for both Mr. Khosa and Mr. Floyd.
South Africa has recorded 12 deaths allegedly caused by police or military personnel during its lockdown. At least 18 deaths have been documented in Nigeria, and about 20 in Kenya, during their pandemic curfews.
On a per-capita basis, police-related killings are more common in South Africa than in the United States. About 1,000 deaths annually are attributed to police actions in the United States, compared with about 600 annually in South Africa, but the U.S. population is more than five times larger.
U.S. diplomats in Africa, in a series of unusual statements on social media, have been making a link between Mr. Floyd’s death and security-force abuses in African countries. Brian Nichols, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe and himself an African-American, condemned the “brutal killing” of Mr. Floyd and expressed “horror” at his death, but also cited six cases of Zimbabwean activists who were allegedly assaulted or abducted by Zimbabwean security agents in recent years.
“As an African-American, for as long as I can remember, I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” he said. “Americans will continue to speak out for justice whether at home or abroad.”
The lockdowns and curfews across Africa during the pandemic have further exposed the security-force abuses. While many African countries have won praise for their early interventions to reduce the spread of the virus, the toll of lockdown excesses by police and soldiers is still being counted today. Hundreds of people have been arrested, including journalists and political activists, in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Cameroon.
South Africa, with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns during April and May, deployed thousands of soldiers to assist the police in enforcing it. By late May, the security forces had arrested more than 240,000 people –more than any other African country.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the security forces “let their enthusiasm get the better of them.” Officials later seemed to realize that the arrests were too numerous, and prosecutors decided to drop a quarter of the cases. “You don’t want to criminalize the country,” prosecuting authority official Rodney de Kock told a parliamentary committee.
Many of those charged were low-income street traders and others who were trying to make a living during the lockdown. “The state deployed its machinery against poor people,” South African social activist Musa Gwebani said. “It made criminals of ordinary people, in the ordinary course of their lives.”
Last month, Mr. Khosa’s family went to court, seeking accountability from the military and police. They won a sweeping victory.
Judge Hans Fabricius, of the High Court of Gauteng province, ordered a full investigation of Mr. Khosa’s death and instructed the military and police to introduce clear guidelines for the conduct of their members.
“We are a constitutional democratic republic,” the judge said, “and it is essential that this be repeatedly brought to the attention of the security forces.”
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