Prosecutors and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate would have us believe that a Durban police unit and some associated with it, once admired by crime-frazzled citizens, turned evil.
Before last week, the impression was that these policemen were suspected of taking the war on crime too far, crossing to the dark side by going after vicious men by any means and using lethal force 28 times – whether or not it was necessary.
But an 88-page indictment which emerged on Friday produced a much uglier dimension. Prosecutors sketched a band of 30 policemen, most from what was once known as the Serious Violent Crime unit, which became part of the Organised Crime Unit – Cato Manor, who went way beyond unorthodox methods to stop criminals.
They told of an “enterprise” which turned its wrath into personal profit – be it rewards from those whose rivals had been shot, rewards for good work from the state or organisations, or simply cash stolen at shootings. It was a racket, prosecutors said.
Among the 116 charges are also thefts at shooting scenes of cellphones, wristwatches, cologne, wedding rings, even trouser belts.
In many of the cases, they said, the accused would kick down doors of homes in the dead of night, shoot their targets, then plant firearms to make it look as though they had been under fire, or deadly threat at least.
In one case, the gunning down of taxi boss Bongani Mkhize as he drove his car on February 3, 2009, happened after five others of his taxi association had been killed. A bullet in the neck killed him in uMgeni Road. Prosecutors say his shooters planted in his car a Z88 with its serial number obliterated and they claim that none of the cartridges found at the scene came from that pistol.
None of which has been proved. Was this a death squad, a truly dangerous band of rogue policemen which stopped at nothing? Or a unit of front-line cops in a war, fighting fire with fire? We look forward to the evidence.