Apartheid tactics stand the test of time

Members of the Organised Crime Unit are said to have tortured suspects in this smart Bleomfontein building. (Photo: Ruth Hopkins)

Members of the Organised Crime Unit are said to have tortured suspects in this smart Bloemfontein building. (Photo: Ruth Hopkins)

This article appeared in two parts in The Star on April 15, 2013:

Click here to see “Tortured and shocked: Prisoners awaiting trial sue police minister”.

Click here to see  “Apartheid tactics stand the test of time”.

To see this article as it appeared in The Guardian (UK) on April 14, 2013, click here.

When is enough enough? South Africa’s failure to criminalise torture contributes to the problems police face, writes Carolyn Raphaely

THE BLOEMFONTEIN TOURIST CENTRE is a neat, red modern building in the city centre overlooking the bus terminal and the Vodacom Football Stadium.

For William Dube, allegedly dangled by his ankles from a first floor balcony by members of Bloemfontein’s Organised Crime Unit (OCU), the innocuous-looking building will always be associated with torture, rather than tourism.

Talking through a translator, Dube told the Wits Justice Project how he was cuffed to a chair in an unmarked suite of offices occupied by the OCU in the Tourist Centre: “They attached wires to my penis and back from something that looked like an old “nommer-asseblief” phone. Then they wound it up to get power to shock me. It was very, very painful. I even wet myself.

“They put a plastic bag on my head and closed it with duct tape. They only remove the plastic when you collapse, then they take it off. While they were suffocating me, they put pepper spray inside the plastic bag and sealed it. They kicked and punched me in the eye and ear. I still can’t hear properly.

“Then they took me to the balcony. Two people were holding me, each held one leg. While I was hanging upside down, I agreed to co-operate.  I was terrified they’d drop me. They told me places to point out, how to make a confession and what to say. I did the pointing-out the next day.”

Late last year during a trial-within-a–trial in the Bloemfontein Regional Court, Dube described how he was tortured, assaulted and shocked by members of the OCU, particularly Warrant Officer Jan Basson.

William Dube who says he was tortured by Bloemfontein's Organised Crime Unit (Photo: Carolyn Raphaely)

William Dube says he was tortured by Bloemfontein’s Organised Crime Unit.

Dube’s co–accused Mzwandile Khani said: “I saw his legs and feet over the top of the balcony. I had to ask myself if I was dreaming? It was like something straight out of the movies….”

Advocate Wilfred Phalatsi said photographs of Dube with a swollen red eye, taken by a police photographer after the pointing-out, formed part of the court record. Dube’s injuries were also corroborated by state witness Darren Jansen, as well as co-accused Mzwandile Khani.

However, Dube’s story is not unique: It concurs with reports of assault and torture by other Grootvlei inmates – including Dube’s five co-accused, Khani, Lucky Mametsa, David Seleke, Davies Musimeke and Sifiso Cele. Now, the four Grootvlei Prison awaiting trial inmates, and their two co-accused released on bail last month, are suing Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa for damages.

Anyone who thinks torture and assault of prisoners were the prerogative of the apartheid police should think again. South Africa seems to have learnt little from the lessons of the past. Not from the deaths of Steve Biko or Neil Aggett at the hands of the police, nor from the deaths of Andries Tatane, the Marikana miners, Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia or the Cato Manor hit squad.

As reports of assaults, beatings, pepper spray and torture surface with increasing regularity, the new South Africa is starting to look shockingly like the old. Notes Professor Peter Jordi, an attorney at the Wits Law Clinic who specialises in torture: “The methods police used to abuse suspects under apartheid are exactly the same as those they employ today.

“Torture hasn’t suddenly reared its ugly head. It’s never stopped….  It was carried out at police stations before and continues today. Previously, it was believed that mostly political detainees were tortured. If you’re a criminal arrested for armed robbery today, you face exactly the same fate.

“The police torture people all the time – in their homes, in police cells, in the veld, in cars …This is how the cops investigate. Torture is standard police investigation practice. These policemen are serial criminals. They have methods of investigation which are unlawful and for which they could be prosecuted but they never are… That’s their modus operandi. I’ve had six cases against a police-woman at Diepkloof but she stays on the job and the torture continues.”

The entrance to Grootvlei prison, from which members of the Organised Crime Unit booked out suspects whom they tortured into confessing.(Photo: Carolyn Rapahely)

The entrance to Grootvlei prison, from which members of the Organised Crime Unit booked out suspects. The OCU allegedly tortured the men into confessing. (Photo: Ruth Hopkins)

Many incidents of assault and torture aren’t reported. And if they are, they’re unlikely to come to court. Take the case of Dube, Khani and Mametsa – allegedly all tortured by members of the OCU at the Tourist Centre. The three men reported the matter to their Groootvlei unit supervisor and laid charges of assault with intention to do grievous bodily harm against the OCU and Basson at Bloemspruit Police Station. The case was subsequently transferred to Kagisanong but the men have heard nothing since.

Arrested at the same time as Dube, Khani alleges he was brutally assaulted at his home on May 6, 2010. Two weeks later he was booked out of Grootvlei by OCU members and taken to the Tourist Centre for a second round of beatings, assault and torture.

Like Dube, he was assaulted, kicked, shocked with the ‘phone’, his hands and feet cuffed to a chair, a plastic bag placed over his head and wires attached to his back and penis: “I was shocked repeatedly for almost four hours in front of a woman officer.*

“There were nine or ten policemen watching, and kicking me. One of them opened my legs and kicked me in my private parts. I was screaming so loudly, they forced a dirty cloth in my mouth. I collapsed and fainted. They waited for me to regain consciousness and laughed at me. “I heard them say ‘hierdie kaffir is baie sterk.’

Nearly two years later, Khani’s Grootvlei hospital records confirm “a clot like substance in the penile shaft as a result of being assaulted by police officers.” The clot remains and still causes him pain.

“After being beaten up I was taken to Mangaung police station. Some inmates carried me to the van. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do anything. A police captain advised that I was taken to Pelonomi (Regional Hospital). All the doctor there did was give me painkillers.”

Pelonomi records corroborate Khani’s account of repeated assault by police, that he was “choked” (shocked), suffered severe back pain, soft tissue injury and had large bruises on his lower back.

 “Patient says he was hit in the face, head, lip and right eye…..kicked in the lower back…” Medical records also state that according to the police, “patient was caught on roof from where he fell down.”

“In these cases, doctors’ records are usually unreliable,” Jordi says. “I have a case where the police arrested a suspect in Soweto for breaking a car window. They beat him up, beat him up some more, took him to a park in Lenasia and suspended him with a rope around his neck from a tree.

“They cut him with broken bottles and dragged him behind a truck with rope. Then they took him to Chris Hani where the doctor recorded ‘his pupils were equal and reacting to light.’ Actually, he was blind in one eye as a result of the assault and the doctor failed to pick up his significant injury.”

Though the right to be free from torture is enshrined in the Constitution, the long overdue Combating and Prevention of Torture of Persons Bill, was only tabled in parliament in June last year.

“Parliament has dragged its feet on passing anti-torture legislation for almost a decade now,” says policing authority David Bruce. “This is astonishing as some members of parliament have themselves been victims of extremely brutal torture at the hands of the police.”

Since it’s extremely difficult to corroborate torture allegations, assaults often go unreported, police don’t follow up complaints, medical attention is denied or no medical records exist.

Mametsa, like Khani was booked out of Grootvlei two weeks after his arrest and taken to the Tourist Centre. Here his head was repeatedly bashed against a wall in order to elicit a confession. “They wanted me to agree with everything they said. How can I say yes, or no, to what I don’t know?”

On his return to Grootvlei, Mametsa was taken to the prison hospital where he remained for three days: “I spent four months on my bed after that. I was sneezing blood with green stuff with rotten things in it. Pieces of bone which I’ve kept were coming out of my nose. The section warders helped me write a letter of complaint to Grootvlei centre Co-ordinator Wiley van Heerden who referred me to the prison doctor again.”

After numerous visits to Dr Margaret Bikane (a Cuban qualified doctor from Santiago de Cuba Medical School), Mametsa was repeatedly told there was nothing wrong with him. Nine months later prison dentist Dr Tapan Sewbarun diagnosed a broken zygomatic bone and head fracture, and finally referred him to Pelonomi. Mametsa is still in pain and his left eye sees only grey.

As Mametsa tells it, a scan and x-ray showed a head-fracture: “The Pelonomi doctor wrote me a full-page script but I never received any medicine till today.”

On his second visit to Pelonomi, Mametsa says he was told he needed an operation but when he returned for his third appointment, his medical records had disappeared. Again, he was told there was nothing wrong with him.

Soshanguvwe taxi-owner Musimeke and Cele suffered similar fates to their four co-accused at the Tourist Centre, though Cele says he was spared shock-treatment. Musimeke, who witnessed Cele’s assault, was not as lucky and describes his own beating as “like something out of WrestleMania.”

David Seleke's assault by an officer was captured on camera, but the equipment and footage was confiscated by police. (Photo: Carolyn Raphaely)

David Seleke’s assault by an officer was captured on camera, but the equipment and footage was confiscated by police.

Seleke, a former boxer, was the only member of the group who was questioned but not tortured at the Tourist Centre. Instead, he says he was tortured at home by Basson and others in front of his neighbours and shocked with “something like a cow-prod that the boere use for animals.”

The good news for Seleke was that surveillance cameras he installed in his home for his money-lending business recorded the assaults. The bad news? Seleke was left with a broken rib after being hit by a rifle butt and the monitor and footage were confiscated by the police.

“Straight after my arrest, I laid charges of assault against Basson at Park Road Police Station. I also complained to the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). They confirmed the case but said my statement had disappeared. Only a blank docket remained.”

“La Costa,” as he’s known because of his weakness for Lacoste T-shirts, was assaulted again a few months later by Basson in front of Department of Correctional Services officials, Musimeke and Cele in Grootvlei’s reception area. Seleke lodged another complaint with the prison head, who referred the matter to the Area Commissioner. Though an official investigation was undertaken, the outcome is still unknown.

To date, all attempts by the men to seek redress have fallen on deaf ears. In addition to laying charges, reporting the matter to the Judicial Inspectorate of Correctional Services and the head of Grootvlei, they have written to the Human Rights Commission, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) and Free State Premier Ace Magashule. They’ve received no response.

With unbridled lawlessness and violence part of a pervasive pattern of police brutality occurring nationwide, tax-payers are bearing the brunt. The 2011/12 annual SAPS financial statements reveal payments of nearly R15 billion for civil claims against the department, nearly R1bn for assault claims, R11.9bn for police actions and R1.1bn for shooting incidents.

Clearly, public money used to settle these claims could be far better utilised for crime prevention. Moreover, the ICD 2011/2012 annual report records 4 923 complaints received against the police and 720 deaths in police custody and deaths as a result of police action.

IPID spokesman Moses Dlamini acknowledges at least 194 charges laid by bruised and battered survivors of the Marikana massacre who were allegedly assaulted and tortured while in police custody at Phokeng, Mogase and Jericho police stations.

Since torture is not categorised as a separate crime in SA, its prevalence is almost impossible to assess.

“Police torture is a daily occurrence in Gauteng where I practice,” says Jordi. “I probably handled more than 20 torture cases against the police in Gauteng alone last year.

 Anti-Police Brutality Corruption Network SA’s Zwelakhe Mnisi said: “Nothing has changed. It’s only got worse. I received more than 400 reports of police brutality, torture, bagging, pepper spray and electric shock last year. I didn’t even have an office.”

When is enough, enough? The failure of SA to criminalise torture, the “shoot to kill” rhetoric, a culture of impunity and a militarised police-force all contribute to the problems the police currently face.

Yet Jordi “believes SA’s Judges and magistrates are equally to blame: “They deal with individual cases where torture is alleged and ignore the evidence staring them in the face. …”

Mthethwa’s spokesman Zweli Mnisi referred the WJP to Free State Provincial Head: Corporate Communication Brigadier Billy Jones for comment. “We are aware that such allegations are being investigated by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Their office is the mandated entity that would be in a position to provide you with comment on their investigations. I cannot comment as the investigations are independent from the SAPS.

“This office can only confirm that the mentioned accused who are making these allegations are currently facing serious charges, namely two of armed robbery and one of burglary at business premises. The accused were arrested in the act at the business premise where the burglary took place. The trial involving these accused are (sic) continuing in court on Monday.”

*Names of members of the Organised Crime Unit implicated in this story are known to the Wits Justice Project (WJP).

Raphaely is a member of the Wits Justice Project (WJP) which investigates miscarriages of justice. The WJP is located in the Wits Department of Journalism.  

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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