The return to work of 18 recently arrested Cato Manor police officers has prompted witnesses to their alleged crimes to seek state protection.
The crime unit members accused of killing suspects were released on R5 000 bail each last Friday. They face 71 charges, including 14 for murder.
They reported for work on Monday as public support for them continued to grow online.
A Facebook group set up for members of the unit is “liked” by 4 406 people, while a petition branded “Drop all charges against the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit – Cato Manor” had garnered 388 signatories by yesterday.
T-shirts bearing messages of support are also being sold for R100 each at certain Durban outlets.
The Tribune can reveal that since news spread of the release, witnesses to crimes allegedly committed by the unit have asked to be put in the state’s witness protection programme, while criminologists have questioned the move.
“People have asked for protection; they are afraid,” said Independent Police Investigative Directorate spokesman Moses Dlamini.
He would not give further details or elaborate on the 16 additional murder charges which the state is preparing to add to the case.
Details of the extra charges are expected to be finalised at a meeting of the directorate, the Hawks and the state’s prosecution team on July 9.
Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela confirmed the officers had returned to work. Asked why they had not been suspended, he said, “You have to go through a process to suspend people. They don’t just go to the office and get told they’ve been suspended.”
But he said the officers would not take on new cases.
KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor and sociologist Mary de Haas has expressed concern.
“Some of the victims are terrified and feel vulnerable. These people are widely feared, not just by criminals, but by the relatives of people who died at their hands,” she said.
She said police policy was “inconsistent”.
“I know of a man who was doing good work and he was charged maliciously and suspended. It wasn’t a serious charge. They could have moved these guys to office jobs. But even then it doesn’t stop them plotting and doing damage if they want to.
“It would have been better to bring in a new person from outside the province to supervise their work.”
It is not clear whether two officers, Dumisani Nzama, 44, and Vusi Ngodwana, 34, had turned state witnesses.
Attorney Carl van der Merwe, who is representing the 18 policemen, said claims of policemen turning state witnesses were a ploy by the state’s prosecution team.
Asked about further charges, Van der Merwe said: “I think it will be much more than 16. But we’ll only know when the state produces the necessary documents.”
He said their arrest procedure was a waste of state funds, questioning why so many were brought to Durban to carry out the arrests.
There was a helicopter hovering around. What for?”
“These guys co-operated with investigations and willingly handed themselves over for arrest. Therefore, the magistrate had no hesitation in granting them bail.”
NPA spokesman, advocate Mthunzi Mhaga, insisted yesterday that Nzama and Ngodwana had not been charged. He said the state was not pursuing any charges against them.
“We have nothing on them, we have not charged them and I’m not prepared to pronounce on their status or say whether they are state witnesses,” said Mhaga.
SA Police Union spokesman Oscar Skommere said the union welcomed the officers’ return to work.
“The Hollywood-style arrest was not necessary in the first place,” he said. – Additional reporting by Mervyn Naidoo and Nathi Olifant