By Valencia Talane
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect new criminal charges brought against four Minneapolis policemen implicated in the death of George Floyd. Initially one officer was charged with third-degree murder but his charge has been upgraded to second-degree, while three more accused of playing a role in Floyd’s death have been arrested. At the time of writing only the single third-degree charge stood.
When police officers enforce brutality on innocent civilians, this typically marks the beginning of a chain reaction of rage and demand for accountability from many quarters, as is evident in the recent events in the US. Riots erupted in that country last week – and have not stopped – following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, at the hands of the police in Minnesota on Monday 25 May.
The four officers present during the incident, which was filmed on mobile phone cameras by bystanders, have all been dismissed. Prosecutors have brought charges against the four Initially only one officer was charged with third-degree murder but his charge has been upgraded to second-degree, while three others have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Closer to home, around the same time that America started burning, South Africans were reacting to news that a national defence force (SANDF) enquiry into the conduct of some of its officials on Easter weekend in April, which allegedly led to the death of Alexandra resident Collins Khosa, found no wrongdoing on the part of the soldiers present. Khosa, according to his family, died some time after being assaulted by SANDF officials on 10 April, two weeks into the national lockdown. The soldiers had accused him of not complying with regulations accompanying the lockdown.
In court papers before Pretoria High Court Judge Hans Fabricius, an affidavit by Khosa’s wife details how the 40-year-old was pulled out of his home after protesting against the treatment of soldiers who found that he had been drinking alcohol with a relative outside just before their arrival. They severely assaulted him and poured beer over his head. At some point, in addition to being punched and kicked, one of his assailants struck Khosa on the head with a rifle butt.
The family’s legal team further argued that Khosa was overpowered by a number of soldiers, after his original attackers called for backup in the ensuing altercation. A medical report stated that he died from blunt force trauma to the head. Despite the findings of the SANDF enquiry, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is on record as saying the investigation into what happened on that fateful Friday afternoon remains open.
Tragically, Khosa is not alive to testify to what witness statements described as his torture, punishment many have since declared inappropriate for the transgression of which he was accused. The same witnesses testified to fear of the officials, from whom they allege they received harsh threats while video clips of the incident were deleted from their phones. A national petition is currently seeking justice for Khosa and his family.
Unwarranted brutality a Saps modus operandi
Given Ravele (28) of Soweto can attest to a similar experience. His experience, although traumatic, had a happier ending, because he is alive. Ravele was standing at the wall of his home in Protea early one evening in April, observing events in the street. Officials from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the army were conducting a joint vehicle stop-and-search operation on the busy street. They checked for motorists’ compliance with regulations relating to social distancing and the transporting of banned substances. At some point, a motorist was stopped, his car was searched, and all three occupants were apprehended and placed in a police van. Ravele happened to be watching this, phone in hand, when a JMPD officer noticed him.
Assuming that he was filming the incident that had just happened, the JMPD officer charged at Ravele.
“He came into my yard, shouting at me, saying I was using my phone to film him and his colleagues,” Ravele told Corruption Watch, “but I wasn’t. I just happened to have my phone in my hand.”
The officer allegedly did not ask to verify his suspicion by checking Ravele’s phone, but instead assaulted him before dragging him out into the street, amidst protests from members of his family who had been with him the whole time.
A terrified Ravele had no idea where the officer was taking him, and even thought he was to meet the same fate as the other men in the police van. But this was not to be. Instead, he says, he was dragged down the street to a larger group of officials. He was shoved and slapped by his assailant, who also shouted insults to him and told his colleagues that Ravele had filmed him making an arrest.
“That’s when things got bad.” It had just started raining, so it was a bit dark, explained Ravele, who says the other officers also started slapping and punching him. He lost his balance and fell to the ground, all the while pleading for mercy. He was kicked several times, while all he could hear were insults hurled at him.
“I was screaming and pleading with them to forgive me. At some point, an army official had the back end of a rifle aimed at me, and I thought he would hit me with it, but he did not.”
Because of the weather conditions and the dim light, Ravele doubts that he would be able to identify most of his assailants. The one face that did not escape him, however, was that of the man who dragged him out of his yard.
“That guy didn’t even give me a chance to explain. He assumed I had my camera on, and I kept trying to show him I was not filming. The worst thing about it is that I was not violating regulations. I was not in the street. I was in the yard. My only crime is watching them as they stopped cars.”
Ravele sustained injuries to his upper body, and his phone was damaged in the incident. On the day of his interview with Corruption Watch, just two days after the incident, he reported that he went to a local private clinic the morning after, as he was still in pain.
His next step was to report the incident to the City of Johannesburg’s ombudsman. The office, says Ravele, responded by sending him a complaint form to fill in, which he did.
Why did he not consider laying charges at the local police station?
“I did think about going to the police station, but I thought they would not help me. My previous experience with the police here was not so good. I reported a break-in incident not so long ago, and that was the last I heard from them.” He has since reported the incident, which is now being investigated by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid).
“They are very cruel”
In another part of the country, in the Western Cape, 21-year-old Samier Jacobs sustained serious injuries at his Hanover Park home on the Sunday following the Khosa incident, allegedly at the hands of the local gang unit of the SAPS. Acting on a tip-off that Jacobs was harbouring guns on the property, several members of the unit descended on the house late in the afternoon, demanding to search the property, said Jacobs’ aunt Ferial Davids to Corruption Watch.
When the search was completed, the rest of the people in the house were ordered to wait outside. “They took him into the room, they undressed him,” recalled Davids.
“Then they made weapons with locks… and they used DVD cords. They tied it up on the locks and they beat him with that. This one guy had a baseball bat, and they were all beating him up. They didn’t want anybody to come into the house and even into the road. We couldn’t get in. They said that they were busy.”
It was the first such encounter Jacobs has ever had with the police, according to Davids, who adds that she has seen such violent acts from the police many times when dealing with young men in the area. The small-framed Jacobs, she says, stood no chance against the men beating him. “They actually beat the curtains off from the windows, and then they put it up again because we could see how they were beating him.”
Once the assault was over, says Davids, the officers left Jacobs on a bed.
In pain and bleeding, he was then rushed to Heideveld hospital by his family, after having waited for an ambulance that did not arrive. He was treated for internal bleeding, before being moved to Mitchells Plain hospital.
The next step for the family was to open a case of assault at the nearest police station, in Philippi, and obtaining a J88 form that details his injuries. With this form in hand, citizens can forward his assault case to Ipid which would then investigate.
This is where the nightmare intensifies for the family, as an investigation will need to verify which officers were present. According to Davids, many of those present on the day of the beating covered their faces with masks or scarves, concealing their identities. “You don’t even have the privilege to see what their names are, because they don’t wear badges, and they close up their faces, so you can’t see who you’re dealing with.”
They were definitely members of Saps, because all of the seven or so vehicles they arrived in were branded, she asserts. One of the reasons Davids is confident of her observation is that this is not an isolated case. Members of the gang unit especially, she says, are known to behave erratically and with violence against members of the Cape Flats communities. “They are very cruel, and this is not the first time they are doing this to our children.”
Her own son Raeez Davids had a similar encounter about three weeks prior to that of Jacobs. In his case, officers arrived at his home while he was not there, demanding that his mother phone him to tell him to come home immediately. They told Davids they were responding to a tip-off, as in Jacobs’s case, that the younger Davids kept a stash of guns in the house. He was taken in one of the officers’ vehicles, for a “drive”.
The next time Davids saw her son was hours later, when some members of the family had gone looking for him. He was found where he had been dropped off, after being beaten up. He was weak and could hardly breathe, said Davids.
The 25-year-old chose not to press charges, out of fear for his family’s safety.
“I mean when you ask them questions they are so rude to us, even in our own homes. They pull the phones out of our hands and stuff, they treat us like animals,” said Davids.
“Yes, our children like being gangsters, but at the end of the day they must arrest them. Arrest them and let the courts deal with them. You can’t just come into our homes, beat up our children for no reason, that is not right.”