Killing the files: Ipid’s cover-up of police brutality in SA
Torture, rape, killings, assault – South Africans lodged 42,365 criminal complaints against the police between April 2012 and March 2019. Viewfinder’s debut investigation exposes how underfunding, State Capture and statistical manipulation at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) failed the victims and helped violent criminals in the police service escape accountability.
It was the morning of 31 March 2016. The sun had not yet risen but Owen Anthony, Deputy-Director of Investigations at IPID’s Western Cape office, was already at work. He logged into the directorate’s case management system and started “completing” cases one after another. He soon reached a speed of a-case-per-minute: 7:16am, 7:17am, 7:18am, 7:20am … Within an hour, his tally was at 20. Fifteen hours later it had settled at 92.
IPID investigates criminal complaints against the police in South Africa. And, IPID measures performance partly by how many such cases it completes in a year. In theory, the “completed” status means that a “quality investigation” was done. Such cases should then be handed over to state prosecutors.
The second case that Anthony “completed” was an assault case against police officers who raided a Grabouw house in December 2014. “The complainant was handcuffed and when he asked (what) was going on the police… started to kick him on his face, grabbed him with his hair and slapped him on the face,” read the description in IPID’s intake register.
About 11 hours later, Anthony completed a rape case against a Mitchells Plain police officer. “He thereafter pulled up her dress and pulled down her underwear,” read the description, followed by a graphic account of the rape. “A few minutes later, the son of the victim arrived from the shop and suspect member stopped raping her. Suspect member thereafter left the scene in a bakkie.”
Through the course of that Thursday, Anthony was joined on the case management system by colleagues at IPID’s other provincial offices. Most of them were doing the same thing – completing cases in quick succession. They worked well into the night. At 10:02pm an “Assault” case was completed in the Eastern Cape, at 10:03pm a “Torture” case in Mpumalanga, at 10:09pm a “Death as a result of police action” case in KwaZulu-Natal.
The timing was perfect. This was the last day of the reporting year, the last day for which performance statistics from the provinces could be included in IPID’s 2015/16 annual report.
The year before, Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police (PCP) had recommended that IPID improve its performance, and IPID Acting Executive Director (ED) Israel Kgamanyane had vowed that it would do so. It was not an idle promise. If anyone knew how to smash “case completion” targets at the IPID, it was Israel Kgamanyane. In 2012, under his tenure as Provincial Head, the Free State office of the directorate’s predecessor organisation completed 100% of its caseload against a national target of 65%. Kgamanyane now oversaw all nine provinces.
At the KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga offices the race against the midnight deadline went down to the wire. KwaZulu-Natal’s Charmaine van der Sandt completed the last case for the year – one related to the death of a detainee in a police vehicle accident – with only seconds to spare. That brought the national tally of cases completed on the day to 308. Then, at exactly midnight, the case management system went dead quiet. No single other case, at any IPID office in South Africa, would be formally completed for the next ten days.
The children of Piketberg, a town in the wheat-producing Swartland north of Cape Town, are specialist go-cart builders. This is the enduring memory that Sanna Goliath has of her grandson Austin: a shrieking boy racing down Alwyn Street while directing the cart’s front axle with bare feet and steering rope.
For many children of farmworker communities, however, a carefree country upbringing is short-lived. As a teenager, Austin coveted his schoolmates’ branded tracksuits and PlayStations. He provoked quarrels with his mother, Katrina, about money and the lack of it.
During the summer of 2015, Katrina alerted the police after an argument turned violent. At 7:00am on the morning of 8 December police officers came searching for 17-year-old Austin Lee Goliath. They found him at his grandmother Sanna’s house on Alwyn Street and read him his rights as they led him away. The boy was apparently calm and co-operative as he settled in on a mat in the holding cell at Piketberg police station.
Two hours later Austin was dead, hanging from the cell’s steel gate by his socks.
What happened during those final two hours of Austin’s life? This question has plagued Sanna Goliath for nearly four years. Her nights are often sleepless. She wishes she could visit the cell and touch the steel gate where Austin was found. In the absence of certainty from elsewhere, she imagines that some clue or answer may come to her there.
South Africans who lost children to apartheid’s holding cells – deaths often attributed by the authorities to “suicide by hanging” – would recognise Goliath’s lack of closure. During apartheid the uncertainty had a distinctly cynical undertone. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found the apartheid police leadership to be indirectly accountable for all unnatural deaths of detainees in police custody between 1960 and 1990.
Today, IPID is tasked to investigate such deaths independently.
At 5:27pm, on 31 March 2016, Owen Anthony completed the investigation into Austin’s death. The post-mortem found that Austin died as a result of hanging. Yet, IPID concluded that this was a “suicide” on the basis of statements from the police officers who were on duty. These statements were taken down and certified by other officers at Piketberg police station more than a week after Austin died.
From a close reading of the docket, it is not evident that the IPID investigator attended the scene of Austin’s death – a procedural requirement and crucial first step from which further investigation would follow. In fact, it is unclear whether the investigator ever left his desk at all. It was a police officer, not the IPID investigator, who collected the post-mortem report from Malmesbury Forensic Pathology Services on 14 January 2016, a staff member there reported.
Without permission from victims or their families, it is not possible to analyse the other 307 cases completed by IPID on 31 March 2016. Yet, certain facts about IPID’s operations at the time cast doubt on the integrity of most of those investigations.
According to an IPID investigator interviewed on condition of anonymity, the practice of rushing poorly investigated files through the case management system had become commonplace at their provincial office by 2016. This was done to generate the “completion” statistics that IPID uses to measure and report performance.
The investigator, who was also the case worker on some of the files completed on 31 March 2016, said: “The main aim of IPID is to move as many cases from ‘active’ to ‘decision ready’ (i.e. ‘completed’) as quickly as possible. By itself, the ‘decision ready’ status is meaningless. It has no actual impact on the offender. Without an arrest, without a prosecution, without a conviction there is no accountability.”
There was apparently no follow-through on completed cases. Sometimes the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) sent poorly investigated dockets back to this particular IPID office, along with queries, the investigator said. Some of these dockets were then “thrown onto a pile” and ignored because, as far as IPID’s case management system was concerned, the cases were complete. “A job well done.”
“IPID is failing poor people and misleading the public. There is no justice for the victims,” the investigator concluded.
Many other reports, dating back to at least 2012, alleged that IPID cases were prematurely completed or closed. Usually these reports were escalated internally: from whistle-blowers to IPID’s Ethics Manager, and on to top management. In a January 2016 memo to Kgamanyane, IPID Ethics Manager Amar Maharaj flagged the “suppression” of one such whistle-blower complaint from Mpumalanga.
Maharaj also complained about a superior who had asked that he delete a section, one which flagged that cases may be “completed without proper investigation… to achieve performance/statistical targets”, from an official report the year prior.
When Kgamanyane apparently failed to act on his 2016 memo, Maharaj sent two memos to then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. These now purported to represent whistle-blower reports from all nine provincial offices and requested an investigation.
“The closure … and the completion of cases without proper investigation is … a criminal offence which warrants the criminal charge of, amongst others, defeating the ends of justice,” he wrote.
“The result is that justice is denied and deviant police officials become more brazen, and become repeat offenders, as they know that the IPID is ineffective … Behind the statistics provided in this report are hundreds of victims of assaults, murder and torture who are deprived of justice.”
The memos are all worth reading, but six words from the KwaZulu-Natal whistle-blower present an apt summary: “The mission is to kill files.”
Almost immediately after the 2016 memos were circulated, Kgamanyane informed Maharaj of IPID’s intention to transfer him out of the Ethics office. Such transfers were, apparently, typical of Kgamanyane’s approach to dissenters.
Then Kgamanyane travelled to Parliament and, to praises from Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, presented IPID’s 2015/16 annual report. He reported a significant spike in IPID’s performance on the completion of cases. He attributed the success to a “Turnaround Strategy” which he had helped implement and steer.
Kgamanyane did not respond to a question from Viewfinder about what specifically this turnaround strategy entailed. The Public Protector’s office did not respond to queries about whether it acted on Maharaj’s memos.
Behind the statistics provided in this report are hundreds of victims of assaults, murder and torture who are deprived of justice.IPID ETHICS MANAGER AMAR MAHARAJ, AUGUST 2016
After contributing to IPID’s performance spike, what were the eventual outcomes of those 308 investigations completed on 31 March 2016? What happened to the officer accused of kicking the handcuffed Grabouw man in the face? What happened to the man accused of rape who pulled up his trousers and drove off in his bakkie when he heard his victim’s son returning home from the shops? Did the family of Sibongiseni Khanyile, the awaiting-trial prisoner who died in a car wreck near Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, apparently due to the “negligent handling of an official vehicle”, ever get justice?
Viewfinder cross-checked the sample of 308 against IPID’s registers for criminal convictions. Over the following two years just two of those cases ended in successful prosecutions in court. For many cases, there was no record that they had even been sent to the prosecutors in the first place, as IPID’s procedures would require.
These 308 cases represent a small sample, yet the low conviction ratio remains roughly consistent across thousands of other cases. IPID registered more than 42,000 complaints against the police between April 2012 and March 2019. Only 531 IPID cases ended in criminal convictions over that same period.
Over the past year, we have perused hundreds of complaint descriptions for the unprosecuted cases against the police. Included are vivid accounts of child rape and torture; of shootings and maiming; of extrajudicial killings; of bodies found hanging by ropes, belts, T-shirts, blankets, shoelaces and socks in police cells all across South Africa.
Kgamanyane’s presentation to MPs was one of his last actions at the directorate’s helm. Just days later, his predecessor, Robert McBride, returned to work after his earlier suspension was declared unlawful and set aside by the Constitutional Court.
McBride later wrote that he returned to an “atmosphere of fear” and instability. He was still settling in when he received a memo alleging that the logins of former IPID investigators – one of whom was apparently dead – had been used to “fraudulently” close cases at the Gauteng IPID office.
McBride described the situation in a recent statement to the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture.
“I discovered that there were allegations [of] the manipulation of cases to artificially inflate the performance of the IPID in my absence,” he said.
“Kgamanyane even went to Parliament and reported that performance was much better in the absence of the suspended and transferred (sic), however, this was a blatant lie which was told to make himself look good.”
IPID’s head office, a drab building on a jacaranda-lined street in downtown Pretoria, displays the directorate’s focus areas beside the front entrance: “Any deaths in police custody… Rape by a police officer whether the officer was on or off duty…”
McBride’s tenure may have ended, but some of those still in top management were his close aides.
Viewfinder interviewed Matthews Sesoko, a career IPID man who rose through the ranks from the North West provincial office to his current position as National Head of Investigations in Pretoria. Sesoko said that whistle-blower allegations of statistical manipulation were confined to the period of his and McBride’s suspension. Our investigation suggests otherwise.
“For context it is important to indicate that McBride, myself and others were suspended,” he said. “But, essentially, what had happened was that statistical information was inflated to show that IPID was performing at a particular level, which was not the true reflection in our view.”
Because IPID staffers alleged that the instruction to “push” the completion of cases came from Kgamanyane himself, Sesoko said, IPID assigned its Integrity Strengthening Unit to investigate all nine provincial offices. This team, two people in reality, has apparently been reviewing “thousands” of dockets to establish the extent of the statistical manipulation during the 18 months of McBride’s suspension. Nearly three years later their report is still outstanding.
“I’m sure very soon we would be concluding that process and we’d be able to take action against people who are fingered,” said Sesoko.
Sesoko said that management only became aware of “this phenomenon” in relation to Kgamanyane’s tenure. But this disregards provincial site visit reports from 2014 which suggest that some investigators had raised the alarm months before McBride and Sesoko were suspended.
The system of completing cases was “a dereliction of duty”, said an investigator quoted in the KwaZulu-Natal report of the same month. “SAPS members are literally getting away with murder, assault and torture.” Similar allegations were contained in the Gauteng report of June 2014.
Asked about the 2014 whistleblower reports, Sesoko conceded that he was aware of them and said that the Public Protector was tasked to investigate – a claim which the Public Protector’s office subsequently denied.
Responding via text message to a question about the 2014 site visit reports, McBride said that his office investigated “every” complaint it received. “Many complaints … were bogus or unsubstantiated,” he said.
With regard to the 2016 reports, Sesoko said that IPID had taken action against Gauteng officials implicated in the fraudulent closures reported in November 2016. Management reviewed the Standard Operating Procedures to close loopholes which allowed for the premature completion of cases, he added. Sesoko also said that head office conducts ongoing inspections of the provincial offices’ work.
IPID did not specifically answer follow-up questions about what these amendments and inspections entailed. In an eleventh hour response, IPID contradicted Sesoko’s view that statistics were probably manipulated during Kgamanyane’s tenure: “IPID would like to put on record that no evidence of stats manipulation during 2015/2016 financial year has been presented to Management. Management is therefore not in agreement with this allegation until evidence is provided.”
IPID added that the allegations from 2014 and 2016 were “untested and unproven”.
For his part Kgamanyane said that McBride’s allegations against him at the Zondo Commission “were not supported by any substantiated fact or concrete evidence”.
“I filed my responding affidavit and applied to cross-examine him or give evidence to that effect,” he said.
Against the backdrop of “State Capture”, McBride’s suspension is today understood as part of a broader attempt to undermine IPID and other institutions mandated to tackle corruption and criminality within the state.
Coinciding roughly with McBride’s suspension, the National Treasury cut IPID’s budget for two years running. Yet, IPID had consistently appealed for more resources to handle its massive caseload. Such cases often come from police brutality victims in poor and vulnerable communities.
Beyond the large caseload – it was at more than 11,000 cases in the 2018/19 year – the demands on IPID’s investigators are abnormally time consuming. Unlike police officers, whose work usually covers small precincts, the jurisdictions of IPID investigators cover entire provinces.
If today a teenager was picked up for being drunk in public in Port Nolloth and was then found dead, a few hours later, hanging by his shoelaces in a police cell – this, according to IPID data, is what happened to 19-year-old Abongile Moni on 8 October 2012 – the designated investigator would have to drive 915 kilometres from the provincial office in Kimberley to attend the scene, conduct a preliminary investigation, ensure the collection of forensic evidence, take witness statements, visit the next of kin, attend a post-mortem and submit a report. According to IPID’s regulations, the investigator must do all this within 24 hours while, in all likelihood, carrying numerous other case files.
In 2013, a few months after Moni’s death in a Port Nolloth cell, parliamentarians were concerned that “travel” was listed as a challenge for investigators. They said that there had not been enough expansion in the area of satellite offices. That same year, support for satellite offices was pledged by then Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa. Instead, IPID announced in 2018 that it had closed down four satellite offices because it “could not afford” them. Among those closed was the office at Upington, which previously closed the gap between Port Nolloth and Kimberley by hundreds of kilometres.
“I wish that you could spend a day in the shoes of one of those investigators, so that you can see what they have to contend with,” said a former high-ranking IPID official interviewed for this story.
He said that many police officers justify, to themselves and colleagues, the killing and torture of alleged criminals. The police cover for one other. They tamper with the scenes of the crimes they commit, before IPID investigators arrive. They use their command of the criminal justice system to sabotage IPID investigations. IPID investigators, who rarely have the budget to employ independent experts, must rely on this same police service for forensic and ballistic expertise.
IPID investigators have the same powers and status as police officers, but their pay has never been equal to that of their counterparts – detectives – in the service. This has inevitably sapped morale, even though the Labour Court recently ordered IPID to back-pay its employees on the correct scale. In a June memo to IPID’s Labour Unit, Mpumalanga investigators complained that they were not given a food allowance or paid properly for the overtime hours that attendance to faraway crime scenes requires.
If, against all the odds, a well investigated docket makes it to the NPA, prosecutors may well be reluctant to pursue convictions against police officers with whom they work and mingle in court, said the former IPID official. He attributed the low conviction rate of IPID cases mainly to the NPA declining recommendations for criminal prosecutions.
In spite of these challenges, the performance targets on “Decision Ready” investigations remain in place. So does the requirement to report these statistics to Parliament (as IPID’s current Acting Executive Director Victor Senna is scheduled to do later this month). Does this leave investigators and their managers, like KwaZulu-Natal’s Charmaine van der Sandt and the Western Cape’s Owen Anthony, with an impossible choice between two conflicting responsibilities: ensuring the quality of every investigation they complete, and generating good performance statistics for their bosses in Pretoria to table before Parliament?
Van der Sandt and Anthony did not respond to email queries. Yet, to focus solely on IPID’s management teams, at national or provincial level, is a dangerous distraction, said the former IPID insider.
“I’m not saying that IPID cannot be criticised,” he said. “But this is the real question: is there the will within our government to hold criminality in the police service accountable? I don’t believe that there is. IPID was set up to fail from the beginning. In 2012 (following the implementation of the IPID Act), we were given a stronger mandate to investigate the police, but the resources and support needed to do this never followed.”
* Are you a police brutality victim whose case was poorly handled? Are you an IPID investigator with feedback or info that we should know? Do you have questions about this investigation? We would like to hear from you. Get in touch.
** This article was originally published by Viewfinder in partnership with GroundUp and Daily Maverick