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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK

World: Africa

Nation divided over police brutality

The report caused feelings to run high in Johannesburg

By Jeremy Vine in Johannesburg

A BBC report on the Johannesburg Flying Squad, which showed police unashamedly beating up suspects, provoked an outcry worldwide.

Watch Jeremy Vine's report
Yet in South Africa itself, the reaction has been less straightforward.

Eleven policemen have been suspended as a result of the report, but there is acute awareness that the police lead a highly-dangerous life - three times as likely to be murdered as civilians.

Some people even support their actions.

Suspects beaten

Our footage showed the police dragging suspected hijackers from a car wreck and beating them badly. One died later.

[ image: Juan Schmidt:
Juan Schmidt: "Tremendous"
When the pictures were shown in South Africa, Juan Schmidt - the owner of the crashed car - came forward, saying the men the police beat up had just hijacked him.

Mr Schmidt says the attackers put a gun to his head, and thinks the police beatings were justified.

"Tremendous. I think it's a lot of support for the police. People realise it's a hard crime, and you can't deal with these people in a soft manner. You've got to show some force," he said.

How much force is justified?

Five more officers have just been suspended as a result of the film, bringing the total now to 11.

Among those who have condemned the beatings is Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president who is likely to take charge of the country in June.

"We still have this continuing struggle to root out brutality in the South African police. That's why the complaints directorate was established, to give us a mechanism to deal with this problem," he said.

"It is prohibited to torture, it is prohibited to beat up people."

[ image: The Johannesburg Star received emotional calls]
The Johannesburg Star received emotional calls
However, the footage by this bureau has split South Africa.

Mr Mbeki's condemnation has been echoed by the police authorities, and by many black South Africans who have long suspected their country's institutions are not as changed as they ought to be.

But the reaction from the rest of the country has been furious.

Callers to a radio phone-in showed just how much backing the suspended officers have - most of the black callers were much more worried about the actions of the police.

There is now a campaign to get the suspended officers reinstated, and the crime reporter with one of South Africa's biggest daily newspapers says their supporters are making their views felt.

Gill Gifford, of the Johannesburg Star, said: "They're ringing me - very emotional, I've had people crying.

"I had someone saying they wished I would be hijacked so I would know what's it's like to be a victim because they saw my coverage of the documentary as being biased."

Explaining police action

[ image: The BBC's Jeremy Vine at the radio phone-in]
The BBC's Jeremy Vine at the radio phone-in
All kinds of perspectives have been offered to explain or justify or condemn what the cameras captured.

It has reminded all South Africans just how traumatised their country is by crime. Some claim it is proof that apartheid lives on, others that the country was not ready for the huge change it has been through.

Bizarrely, one government minister said it was a deliberate attempt to sabotage South Africa's bid to host the World Cup. Others are more philosophical.

The great sadness is that in a country which suffered so much because human rights were not recognised, there is now a serious debate about whether people picked up by the police should be allowed them.

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