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Police violence in South Africa: what do the numbers show?

This article is more than 3 years old

  • After a boy with down syndrome died following a policing incident, an image making several claims about the South African police was shared online.

  • Its figures for torture, assault and death at the hands of the police are correct, and a claim that South Africa’s police force has grown by 50% since 2002 is mostly correct.

  • But it is unproven that the South African Police Service kills three times more people per capita than police in the United States.

The death of a South African boy in August 2020 has sparked national outrage and raised questions about police violence in the country. 

Nathaniel Julies, who had down syndrome, was shot while standing outside his home in Eldorado Park, a Johannesburg suburb. He died in hospital the next day. Three police officers were arrested in connection with the incident. 

After the death of Julies, an image with claims about the size of the South African police force and crimes its members are accused of was posted online.   

The image appears to have been taken from a document compiled by the South African activist group Cops are Flops. The document in turn cites a 2019 article by the website Africa is a Country.

Are the claims supported by data? We looked into them. 


Since 2002, South Africa’s police force has grown by 50%



A police force may consist of both “sworn staff” – officers with the power to arrest and search people – and “unsworn staff”, who typically perform administrative and support functions. This is according to a criminal justice assessment toolkit by the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs.

According to a 2002/03 South African police service annual report, the department had a total of 132,310 employees that year. The latest annual report shows there were 192,277 employees in 2018/19. These figures indicate that the police force grew by 45.3% over the period.

But the figures include public service act employees who provide organisational and administrative support to the police. When they are excluded, police personnel numbers stood at 102,737 in 2002/03 and 150,885 in 2018/19. 

The UN defines police personnel as “those whose principal functions are the prevention, detection and investigation of crime and the apprehension of alleged offenders”.

Using this measure, South Africa’s police force has grown by 47% since 2002.  

More police doesn’t guarantee less crime 

Employing more police doesn’t necessarily result in less crime, according to  Dr Guy Lamb, former director of the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town

“It ultimately depends on how those personnel are deployed by police leadership,” he said. “Crime levels may decrease only if police personnel are appropriately trained and deployed to high crime areas.”

Lamb argued that rising police numbers could result in corruption and increased police violence. 

“An increase in the number of police personnel can actually be problematic, especially if the recruitment standards are low and the training is inadequate.”


In 2018, South African police service officers were accused of 217 cases of torture and 3,661 cases of assault



South Africa’s Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is tasked with investigating offences allegedly committed by national or municipal police, such as torture and assault. Torture and assault includes beating, electrocution and suffocation. 

In 2017/18, 217 cases of torture were reported to the directorate. The most recent statistics are from 2018/19, when the number of cases increased to 270

A total of 3,661 cases of assault were reported in 2017/18. This figure increased to 3,835 in 2018/19.  

An unknown number of offences committed by national and municipal police services is not reported. “It depends on knowledge of Ipid, willingness to report and willingness to be interviewed,” Lamb told Africa Check.


558 people were killed by the police in 2018, while 201 people died in police custody



Death as a result of police action refers to the death of any person caused, or believed to have been caused, by a member of the national or municipal police service. 

In 2017/18, 558 people died as a result of police action. In the 2018/19 financial year, the number of deaths as a result of police action was lower, at 440

Incidents of death in police custody refers to one or more deaths in the custody of the national or municipal police. This includes death by natural causes, suicide, injury and negligence.  

In 2017/18, Ipid recorded 201 incidents of death in police custody. In 2018/19, the figure grew to 214. But these figures are for incidents, not the number of deaths. For example, if two people died in the same prison fire, one incident would be recorded, even though there were two deaths.  

This means there could be more deaths than incidents. (Note: Data on the number of deaths is not provided in the directorate’s annual reports.) 


The South African Police Service kills three times more people per capita than the United States police force



The comparison between South Africa and the United States is based on data from 2018. Paul Clarke, who wrote the Africa is a Country article in which the claim was originally made, told Africa Check that it was “a back of the napkin calculation”. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies.

Clarke said he used Ipid’s 2017/18 figures on the number of people who died as a result of police action (558) and South Africa’s 2018 population estimate. Based on this, there were about 9.7 reported deaths as a result of police action for each million people in South Africa. 

His US calculation was based on 990 deaths as a result of police action recorded by the Washington Post, an American newspaper, in 2018. Based on the 2018 population estimates from the US Census Bureau, this works out as 3.0 deaths per million people. South Africa’s rate is 3.2 times greater.

But the Washington Post’s figure of 990 deaths is only for police shootings. It does not include deaths from other causes. 

Comparing all deaths as a result of police action in South Africa with deaths as a result of police shootings in the US “isn’t a fair comparison”, Andrew Faull, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, told Africa Check. 

Lack of data in both countries

A 2013 law requires US law enforcement to collect and release data on deaths of suspects in police custody. However, according to journalism research collator Journalist’s Resource, “federal officials have not yet gathered the data and made it public”. 

As a result, databases on the number of deaths due to police action have to be cobbled together using a number of different sources. 

For example, research project Mapping Police Violence tracks deaths using crowdsourced databases, social media, obituaries, criminal records databases and police records. 

Its researchers estimated that 1,140 people were killed by US police in 2018 – or 3.5 people per million. South Africa’s rate was 2.8 times larger. 

Clarke told Africa Check that he had consulted the Mapping Police Violence numbers while writing his original article. He chose not to cite the project "because it wasn’t a journalistic enterprise", and relied on the Washington Post numbers instead.

But Faull says that even more comprehensive US records of deaths “may still not be as broad as Ipid’s mandate”. 

The Mapping Police Violence project does not record instances of “people who were killed by a civilian driver or crashed without being hit directly by police during a police pursuit”. South Africa, on the other hand, records all deaths due to collisions “while being pursued by police”.

Based on the limitations of the available data and the number of deaths that may go unreported in both countries, we rate this claim as unproven.

(Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Clarke said he was aware of the data collected by Mapping Police Violence at the time that the claim was published.)

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