Is It Safe To Use Rubber Bullets During Protests?

Ben Winks, an independent advocate based in Johannesburg, speaks to the dangers of the use of rubber bullets amongst unarmed crowds as he answers the question of whether rubber bullets are safe enough to be used during protests.

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Ben Winks, an independent advocate specialising in Media and Constitutional law, spoke on the dangers of using rubber bullets in a crowd of unarmed civilians.

In his interview, Winks states that despite the catastrophe that the use of rubber bullets has created in the past, he does not believe that there has been “any serious interrogation of how the South African Police Service use rubber bullets or other weaponry in policing unarmed protest”.

Winks notes that SAPS permits the use of rubber bullets as a method of dispersing a crowd, something of which is illegal under international law, stating that “rubber bullets are meant to be used to neutralize an individual aimed threat” rather than to disperse peaceful crowds. 

Even in the event that rubber bullets are to be used, Winks maintains that they should only ever be aimed below the waist, and should not be aimed at point-blank range. This is not how the South African police have been operating their weaponry, given the killing of innocent bystander, Mthokozisi Mtumba, during the Braamfontein student protests in March of 2021. 

The police claim that it is impossible to stop using rubber bullets, which Winks deems untrue, stating that there are much safer alternatives to the rubber bullets currently in use in South Africa.

Winks then went on to speak about the costs paid by the ministry for injuring the public:

The amounts of money that the ministry of police has had to pay in the last 20 years is staggering for wrongful deaths and wrongful injuries.

He sees this large amount of payouts as indicative of the lack of acknowledgement of the systemic problem in police training, equipping and commanding.

The shapes of the bullets themselves have also been said to be unpredictable, even when being aimed directly at perpetrators, lending to them being unsafe for use against unarmed protestors.

Winks proposes that the bullets being currently used by SAPS be banned in favour of much safer rounds of bullets that are in use in countries overseas. He also maintains that South Africa should begin to adhere to international law around the use of rubber bullets that prevent their usage among unarmed crowds.

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