The Legacy of Racism in South Africa

Institutional Violence by Security Forces Recalls Apartheid Abuses

Protesters run for cover as they clash with police at Eldorado Park police station in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 27, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Themba Hadebe


Police brutality has been a part of the South African experience since colonialism. Infamous incidents, such as the shootings which resulted in the death of school children during the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the brutal police assaults that led to the death of Steve Biko due to brain injuries, highlight the South African security forces’ role in the long history of violence against Black bodies. As South Africa marks Human Rights Month, commemorating the struggle for democracy, it is a moment to reflect on the lingering scars that still influence policing in the country.

Since the apartheid regime was dismantled in 1994, security forces in South Africa have been predominately Black. As a result, any violence attributed to them, like the 2012 massacre in Marikana or the violent death of Collins Khosa in June 2020, reportedly at the hands of soldiers, might not be considered a consequence of institutional racism, but rather a result of inadequate training. But assuming police brutality, white supremacy, and institutional racism would dovetail results in a collective cognitive dissonance.

The reality is that police brutality and violence against Black bodies today is a legacy of apartheid. The architects of apartheid were so effective in implementing a system of institutional oppression that despite its end nearly 26 years ago, apartheid still has a solid grip on South African justice institutions.

Even the German Shepherd, a dog ubiquitous in police forces throughout the world, to many Black South Africans, remains a relic of the Apartheid regime. Its ancestors were synonymous with the enforcement of racism, and its descendants remain an integral part of the police service. And like the police themselves, formerly white and now predominantly black, these dogs are still trained to attack Black bodies.

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Human Rights Month in South Africa, we need to recognize that truly dismantling a racist system will mean confronting its legacy throughout the country’s institutions.


© 2021 Human Rights Watch

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