Vuwani – When the sun sets in Vyeboom, a violence-plagued village near Vuwani township Limpopo, fear descends.
The area has been rocked by weeks of violent protests against an unpopular decision by the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB), leading to the torching of more than 20 schools. But it is no longer violent protesters who sow fear and cause anarchy. Residents claim that police - specifically riot police brought in to quell the violence – are now the ones to be feared.
Residents allege that police break their house windows in the dead of the night and assault and shoot at them with rubber bullets. Some victims said their spaza shops’ stocks and profit have also been looted, apparently by members of the police.
Many say they have been targeted after they refused to suspend their protest against government’s plan to incorporate their area under a new municipality.
Residents initially launched their protest action by blockading roads with branches of trees and stones. They also resolved that no schooling would take place until the government reversed the MDB’s decision to incorporate their area under the Malamulele municipality.
The residents’ anger boiled over a few weeks ago when they lost a high court bid to have their area remain under the Makhado municipality.
That was the spark which lit an orgy of violence which saw has tens of thousands of school pupils face an uncertain future after schools were torched and badly damaged by protesters.
Government’s attempts to restore peace and calm in the area have largely failed and pupils are yet to resume normal schooling.
The protests have also continued despite State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s assurance that schools, shops and roads would be reopened.
Mahlobo had said police intelligence unit members and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) would be deployed to ensure that law breakers were brought to book. But for many villagers here, it is the police who are now running a campaign of terror, leading to some villagers sleep in the bush to escape the alleged attacks.
Villagers claim police broke into their houses, hunting for youths allegedly behind the violent protests. Residents claim they were interrogated and assaulted.
Mashudu Magoma, a victim of the police’s alleged brutality, was lying on a dusty street, two crutches at his side. His right leg was in plaster which was partly covered by socks.
Magoma told the African News Agency that he was attacked by riot police who slammed his body against a Nyala after they found him sitting under a tree.
He struggled to speak as he complained about sore ribs. “I was sitting under the tree and suddenly the police chopper arrived and two ladies descended and grabbed me. They pushed me down and kicked me with their boots on the ribs,” he said.
Magoma said a Nyala later arrived at the scene. “They held me and started to hit my entire body against the Nyala, I cried but they continued and opened the door, put my leg half in and other part outside. They squeezed my leg against the door and the Nyala’s body.
“It is still very painful, and I am also heartbroken that police refused to help me open a case,” he said.
Magoma, trembling with fear, worried that police may come and beat him again.
He was transported to a local Tshilidzini hospital where he said the doctor who treated him said his leg would take eight months to heal.
Magoma’s fellow villager, 20-year-old Muvhango Makhokha, was limping, although he was forced to get by with no crutches. This, after he claimed, police broke into his house and assaulted him.
“They broke into my house and started shooting while I was naked in the bed. They dragged me to a Nyala and started to beat me without saying anything,” said Makhokha, as he revealed rubber bullet wounds on his upper thigh, close to his genitals.
“I was rushed to Elim hospital, and they said I should not be given crutches because I was from the Vuwani protests,” said Makhokha.
As the area was still a no-go zone, after his medical treatment, Makhokha was dropped off five kilometres from the village, on the main road that links Vuwani and Elim.
Makhokha said he broke off branches of a tree to create makeshift crutches. “I walked assisted with the branches, rested and walked on until I reached home.”
Tshifhiwa Matumba said: I was with other two ladies, and they beat us, took us into a Nyala and forced us to put our heads under the seat. When I raised my head, they beat us.”
Shavhani Mulaudzi said the police beat him, pushed his head into a cooler box and told him that they were baptizing him.
“They said in Sesotho, ka lebetso la Jesu, Malamulele waya o rata o sa rati, which translates ‘In the name of Jesus, you are going to Malamulele whether you like it or not’.”
Local spaza shop owner in Murahuhathavha, 27-year-old Bengi Musiwa said he was woken up by police who kicked down the door and broke windows in his home, which is next to his tuck shop.
“When they knocked, and broke down the door I was trembling thinking that it’s armed robbers. I was shocked to find that it was the police.”
He said he asked who they were. “They did not respond, instead they shot me on my chest with two rubber bullets.”
He claimed that the police dragged him towards the tuck shop and stole his biscuits and sweets as they told him that he could not question the police.
He said after they beat him inside his tuck shop, they took him to the blockaded roads and forced him to remove stones on the road.
“I found other guys there, they continued to beat us, kicking us with their boots.”
Like many others, Musiwa’s attempts to open a case against police were dashed as he was turned back.
Musiwa said he has lost trust in the police. “I don’t know how we should be able to live in this area. We are not sleeping, because we always think they will come and attack us in the dead of the night.”
“What is happening here shows that there is no democracy, we did everything according to the law, now police resuscitate apartheid tactics in dealing with people who are oppressed,” said community leader Nsovo Sambo.
Police confirmed reports of the alleged incidents and said these were the subject of investigations.
Police spokesperson Colonel Ronel Otto said two cases has been open against police, and she appealed to those who were turned away to approach their local station commander to lay charges.