Since the Covid-19 lockdown was implemented from 27 March, there have been reports of abusive, bullying behaviour by SAPS members towards people in the streets and, elsewhere in South Africa, even deaths. Such incidents should not surprise us because abusive police behaviour, ranging from damage to property to torture which may lead to death, is common in KZN and victims seldom experience justice. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate ( IPID) in KZN is riddled with problems and, at a national level, the Directorate is in a critical state following the assassination of one of its best investigators and the suspension of others with proven track records. Urgent legislative and structural changes are needed. Justice is also defeated because of the atrocious state of KZN forensic services, including mortuaries. After years of inaction, however, it is encouraging that national SAPS management seems to be taking gross police abuses more seriously.
IPID’s narrow interpretation of its mandate
As the death toll from the violence which erupted in Glebelands hostel in 2014 rose the evidence of police complicity grew. In April 2015 an email to IPID management detailed how Sipho Ndovela had been instructed by a notorious Umlazi police member to alter a statement about a murder; it was also sent a copy of an April letter to SAPS management about threats to Ndovela, stressing that the police would be held accountable if he were killed. IPID referred the complaint back to the SAPS because defeating the ends of justice was not part of its mandate. On 18 May Ndovela was shot dead outside Umlazi court before he could make a supplementary statement. Despite mounting evidence of systemic police corruption IPID ignored Section 28 of the governing legislation and denied it was its job to investigate. At that stage around 25 people had died, but, with no constructive intervention, the death toll had escalated to around 100 by the time the alleged police kingpin and some associates faced the trial which is currently ongoing.
Protracted investigations and lack of feedback
Of the Glebelands abuse and torture cases reported since 2014 there have been no successful prosecutions, including in the K matter, in which the victim lost consciousness after being beaten and tubed in 2016. Around the same time, V, living in a Durban shack area, had a near death experience when a police member sat on him (as demonstrated to the TRC by an apartheid era security policeman) and pulled a plastic bag over his face. Investigations should have been straightforward, and, amidst fears that the case has been closed, there has been a steady stream of tame excused about the lack of progress. In the mean- time, the only witness, V’s brother, was almost killed by a criminal with a gun 2019; he was too scared to report the incident (and the gun possession) to the local police because those who abused his brother had operated from that station, and the family fears revenge. Malicious arrest rates are extremely high, and may be accompanied by abuse, as in the case of M who suffered physical injury and financial loss. Nine months later he has received no feedback from IPID and, when contacted, the investigator sounded hostile. There are many reports of serious abuses by the Ministerial Task Team established in 2018 to investigate political killings in KZN, including numerous malicious arrests frequently accompanied by abuse and tubing.
However, in one successful investigation, members of the Umhlali K9 unit were dismissed by the SAPS following an internal disciplinary hearing recommended by IPID. These members (implicated in other tubing incidents) had gone to a rural home where they had tubed a man who had died. To try and cover their crime, they had put the body in a police van and crashed it. Fortunately, a post-mortem revealed that the cause of death was suffocation. Disciplinary action by the national SAPS office is pending against CIS members who were with the canine unit members, and the docket is with the DPP awaiting a decision about prosecution.
Police in balaclavas – and a positive SAPS response
In June 2019, following requests to SAPS management, an ORS (operational response) team headed by a POP (Public Order Policing) commander was deployed in eMpembeni (near Richards Bay), where a series of killings had led to a climate of intense fear. Earlier ORS patrols had done excellent work in providing security, but the June team terrorised residents. It is not unusual for SAPS members, without identification (let alone search warrants) to damage property and abuse people (and steal money) in rural areas. However, these members raided certain homes (apparently strategically) and beat and tubed residents while wearing balaclavas. One man required hospitalisation for a week. Some people opened cases, others did not, and the matter was reported to IPID, with a great deal of information by way of leads. A letter of complaint was also sent to the National SAPS Commissioner who ensured that this grossly irregular SAPS conduct was also investigated internally by a senior SAPS member who reported his findings to national management. This member also assisted the IPID investigator to acquire relevant information from the police. Nine months later victims await feedback, and the last two emails to the investigator remain unanswered.
Inadequate, shambolic forensic services
Due entirely to gross Department of Health mismanagement and corruption the province has a critical shortage of well qualified forensic doctors to assess torture victims properly, especially in rural areas, and very few experienced pathologists to conduct thorough post-mortems. It is imperative that bodies of gunshot victims be X-rayed, but machines may be out of order for long periods, and important forensic evidence is destroyed by unqualified, ill-disciplined mortuary staff. In most cases in which police shoot and torture people crucial evidence is lacking to bring them to book, especially as poor people lack access to independent pathologists and lawyers.
The way forward
It is encouraging that SAPS management appears to be taking police abuse more seriously than in the past. Hopefully they will continue to do so. However, an urgent overhaul of IPID is required, starting with a change of legislation to place the Directorate under an independent body (not the Minister), and a complete staff restructuring which does not allow former police members to manage it. For the sake of all victims of violent crime, it is absolutely essential that forensic mortuary services be removed from the control of the Department of Health and placed under an independent Board.
Reports about the shooting of Ndovela can be found on this website for Nlovela (2014) and eMpembeni (2018 and 2019)