JOHANNESBURG – Police allegedly fired more than a dozen rounds at a car they mistakenly thought was stolen, killing a woman and fueling a debate about whether officers should have greater leeway to use deadly force to combat South Africa's high crime rate.
The shooting comes just weeks after President Jacob Zuma said in a speech that South African police should have fewer restrictions on using lethal force. Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, South Africa's minister of police visited the slain woman's family on Tuesday.
Police opened fire at a car carrying 30-year-old Olga Kekana and three others early Sunday near Pretoria. Kekana was shot in the head and died at the scene. Two others in the car were wounded. The driver was unhurt.
Moses Dlamini, spokesman for the Independent Complaints Directorate that is investigating the shooting, said Tuesday the policemen's weapons had been taken as part of the investigation but that the officers were still at work and had not been disciplined.
"There hasn't been any suspension. There hasn't been any arrest," he said. "At this point we don't know who fired the shot that killed the lady. There are so many question marks here that it is difficult to say."
Those in the car said police did not warn them before opening fire around 5 a.m. Sunday, Dlamini said.
"According to the driver, shortly after they saw police blue lights there were shots fired at them," he said.
The driver stopped, put on his emergency lights and tried to get out of the car when more shots were fired, Dlamini said.
Simon Mathibela, the driver, told The Star newspaper that after opening fire the police stopped to look at the car and its wounded occupants, then left without offering to help.
"When they realized we were the wrong people, they kept on saying 'sorry,"' he said. "The police action is disgusting."
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa visited Kekana's family on Tuesday in the town of Mabopane, near Pretoria.
"We regret this unfortunate incident and wish to express our sympathy," Mthethwa said in a statement. "The police have a duty to fight crime while protecting the lives of citizens, and this must be done within the boundaries of the law."
Ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi said the government is talking to the family about compensation but did not give details.
Louisa Kekana said Tuesday that her cousin Olga was a self-employed hairdresser. "She loved to laugh and was very talkative," she said.
South Africa is struggling to control its high crime rate before next year's World Cup, when about 500,000 visitors are expected.
Government crime statistics released in September show that South Africa's murder rate — one of the world's highest — dropped 3.4 percent. That still leaves 50 murders a day in the country of some 50 million people.
Sunday's shooting prompted questions about whether authorities are going too far in trying to cut crime.
"This is a strong message to officers that they can shoot first and ask questions later," read an editorial in The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper.
Mnisi said he didn't think the shooting was a result of the calls for enhanced police use of force. Zuma's comments late last month to police commanders supported a proposed amendment to give police more freedom to shoot in dangerous situations. Parliament has yet to act on the measure.
The police minister warned officers that "trigger-happy members of the police must not think that this is a license to kill. It is a measure aimed specifically at serious violent crime and dangerous criminals, who place lives of both police officers and the public in danger."