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Cele’s brutal force

National police commissioner General Bheki Cele.

National police commissioner General Bheki Cele.

Published Mar 20, 2011


South African police are becoming more brutal by the day, with civil cases against them pushing the contingent liability budget to a whopping R7.5 billion in the last financial year.

The Sunday Tribune reveals today that the sharp spike in brutal action by the police has prompted the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) to investigate three times more severe assault cases last year than in 2001.

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These revelations come as the country celebrates Human Rights Day tomorrow and against the backdrop of a recent case in which the police were accused of using excessive force on civilians.

Last month the police stormed a restaurant in Melville, Joburg, in the early hours and assaulted patrons. The incident was captured on closed-circuit TV cameras inside the Catz Pyjamas and it shocked the nation.

Police researchers and lawyers who specialise in litigating against the police have warned that anecdotal reports of giving electric shocks, suffocation and other apartheid-style torture methods have become more prevalent.

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- CD statistics compiled by a Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) researcher indicate that:

- Since 2001/02 the number of assault investigations conducted by the ICD has trebled from 255 to 920 in 2009/10. Attempted murder cases it investigated have gone up over seven times from 43 in 2001/02 to 325 in the last financial year.

- The number of fatal shooting investigations was at an all-time high over the past two financial years – at 556 in 2008/09 and 524 in 2009/10. The figure is compared with 458 in 1997/08, 293 in 2002/03 and an all-time low of 281 in 2005/06.

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And policing researchers say the spike in fatal shootings can be traced back to KwaZulu-Natal, where there has been a 173 percent increase in five years – from 75 in 2005/06 to 205 in 2009/10.

“These statistics raise the question of whether sections of the police in KwaZulu-Natal may have adopted an approach which is defined by the belief that extra-legal methods are not only justified, but in fact necessary to address violent crime,” writes David Bruce of the CSVR.

Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi says Minister Nathi Mthethwa is “extremely concerned about the continuing allegations of police brutality”.

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Mnisi says strengthening ICD legislation is the first step to curbing the problem.

“We would rather have the police on the ground, fighting crime than in court defending themselves for their alleged abuses of civilians,” said Mnisi.

Meanwhile, the courts are flooded with civil cases against the police that have pushed the contingent liability budget to R2bn more than the 2005/06 financial year when the police were prepared to pay R5.3bn for assault, damage to property, shooting incidents and other “police actions”.

The police say the amount is deliberately set high, and “not all of it was utilised”.

“When you plan for possible lawsuits, it is best to have more in your budget, but it does not necessarily imply you will utilise the whole amount. So in cases where it has not been fully utilised or lesser lawsuits were brought against the police, it will then be directed to (other) programmes,” said Mnisi.

The Tribune has found a number of civil cases lodged in the Joburg and Pretoria High courts in which the applicants claim the police assaulted, gave electric shocks or suffocated them, and they demand compensation.

The taxpayer carries the burden of paying for the police’s excessive use of force.

While individual cases are not astronomical, with cost awards added, they can mount up.

- Edwin Molokomme claims to have been assaulted, suffocated and given electric shocks at the Wierdabrug police station in Pretoria, before being “forced to sign an admission statement” on February 7, 2007.

- Chiza Ndaba claims to have been bundled into the boot of his car by members of the police in Worcester in the Western Cape, kicked repeatedly and pepper-sprayed on March 19, 2008.

- Isaac Sibiya claims that after his arrest on August 18, 2007 by Vosloorus police on the East Rand, he was beaten so badly he was later admitted to hospital at the Natalspruit Hospital for more than a month.

- Zipho Ndlovu claims Midrand police hooded him, placed him in a torture position and subjected him to electric shocks on May 27, 2010.

- Sifiso Makhubu claims the Diepkloof police smothered, sjambokked and shocked him on November 14, 2009.

While these cases have yet to be tested in court, the ICD is concerned about the resurgence of heavy-handed tactics among the police, saying it has received “numerous reports of unwarranted attacks on civilians by police officers attached to special units”.

“These acts cannot be tolerated in a constitutional democracy.

“Policing in 2011 should be totally different from the apartheid past that we come from.

“Police officers should uphold the rule of law and not be the ones accused of breaking it,” said ICD executive director Francois Beukman.

The outcry came after video footage emerged of police Tactical Response Team (TRT) members barging into Melville bar, the Catz Pyjamas, and assaulting patrons.

The ICD says it is investigating the incident along with another, also involving TRT members, which took place at CJs Pub in Hillbrow.

Wits Law Clinic lawyer Peter Jordi says: “There is a level of criminality within the police much higher than the police will admit.”

Jordi has specialised in civil prosecutions against the police for more than 25 years and says, while he is not against them, he wants “the police to do a good job”.

“I saw, anecdotally, that there was a lot of torture going on in the early 1990s. This is of ordinary criminal suspects. Then there was a diminution and now torture is definitely back at full throttle. It is happening all over the place. They torture you at the drop of a hat about nothing.”

Bruce, who studied ICD statistics from as far back as 1997, says statistics of fatalities in police custody are the most reliable and concerning.

He believes there could be hundreds more incidents of common assault at the hands of the police that are not being reported. - Tribune

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