Another view: Truth is first casualty
The rush to defend the Cato Manor hit squad is not based on facts
MAKHOSAZANA Biyela chokes up when she relates how members of Durban's Organised Crime Unit told her they'd killed her husband, Bongani.
"They kicked me and said, 'Go and see your husband. Go shake his hand'," she says. Then they cracked open a few beers to celebrate.
It's the sort of callous brutality more at home in the era of Vlakplaas, not what you'd expect of people tasked with upholding the constitution.
But it resonates among accounts told to the Sunday Times by witnesses to deaths at the hands of the Cato Manor unit. The story is one you hear from Camperdown to Melmoth: officers of the unit executing unarmed men they suspected of crimes, as well as those in the firing line.
The extent of the spin campaign being marshalled in favour of the unit, and carried in a number of newspapers, is alarming.
The fact that 51 suspicious deaths involving the unit are now being probed by the Independent Complaints Directorate, and that the Hawks have issued "intention to suspend" letters to members, indicates there clearly is a case to answer.
One of the first principles of journalism is to provide a voice for the voiceless, highlighting abuses by those in positions of authority. Only the particularly cynical and misguided would consider the gun-toting Cato Manor unit the "powerless" in this scenario.
Yet a Facebook group - now supported by more than 1500 people - has sprung up to lobby for the "hero cops" who have apparently "become victims" because they "shot dead a few too many criminals in order to protect themselves".
The group's founder calls for people to donate cash to Carl van der Merwe, the lawyer for many unit members. The comments by supporters on the Facebook page are telling, but perhaps unsurprising in a country where many have had nasty run-ins with crime.
Says one: "They did not shoot enough." Says another: "National newspapers will put up any story that will make papers sell even if innocent [and] worthy [people] are affected. These monkeys are one of the reasons for the escalation of crime."
Indisputably, crime is a scourge in South Africa. But Bongani Biyela's 18-year-old nephew simply had the bad luck to be home when the Cato Manor unit allegedly burst in and executed him. His crime? Being related to a man accused of cash-in-transit heists.
Perhaps the most astounding spin in "defence" of the police hit squads was in noseweek, a magazine that made its name by attacking institutions of power, not defending them.
This week, noseweek carried an apologia for the police killings, arguing unconvincingly that closing the Cato Manor unit was a "serious setback for crime prevention". In itself, this insults those police officials who are able to put hardened criminals behind bars without leaving a trail of bodies.
More than that, though: noseweek failed dismally to verify its facts.
Noseweek says the Sunday Times's scoop was "based almost exclusively on the package they had been 'sold' by a certain Thoshan Panday". Panday and police Colonel Navin Madhoe were arrested last year for corruption.
Noseweek adds: "Madhoe is the Sunday Times's main quoted source."
This is poppycock, and an unworthily shabby job for a magazine that many see as the one of the last independent journals capable of railing against the Establishment.
Neither Panday nor Madhoe provided the Sunday Times with any material for the story - a fact noseweek could have verified with a phone call. And this newspaper does not pay for stories, as noseweek well knows.
Noseweek says: "Police sources well-disposed to Booysen allege that the files have been deliberately manipulated or rearranged to support the contention that the Hawks unit acted as a death squad - or at least were stupidly callous."
Unlike noseweek, we don't have to rely on "sources well-disposed" to anyone. Before publishing the photographs that accompanied our articles, we used photo-verification software to ensure the dates and times matched the events depicted.
If there's a lesson for noseweek, it's that stress-testing claims can illuminate an issue, and reduce reliance on "well-placed" sources.
The truth is, the Sunday Times first got a tip-off about the hit squad while interviewing a senior police official in Pretoria in August 2010. Over the next 16 months, evidence trickled in, including from police and witnesses.
One member of the KwaMaphumulo Taxi Association produced a chilling recording in which a member of the Cato Manor unit said: "I will hunt you down and will kill you."
Back in September 2010, the Durban North Taxi Association told the Sunday Times about similar incidents - so the story is far from a case of two suspects dropping a "package" at our door a few weeks ago, as noseweek claims.
If anyone bought a line and failed to truth-test it, it is noseweek, a magazine that does its vaunted reputation no favours by taking short cuts in its rush to print a defence of powerful men.
The witnesses who say they saw Cato Manor members execute suspects weren't part of some elaborate plot by corrupt politicians colluding with unnamed syndicates.
They were ordinary citizens who happened to see something that made their skin crawl, and felt they could not remain silent.
They include one man who told us he saw a Cato Manor cop drag a man out of his hut through the mud in his underwear, before shooting him.
They include two witnesses who recounted how an officer walked up to a car window, pointed his gun inside and finished off a suspect.
And they include Thandeka Sokhulu, who says in a sworn statement that her husband, Lindelani Buthelezi, was executed with a single shot after six policemen marched him unarmed to the next room, after throwing a blanket over her head so she couldn't see his murder.
Can noseweek and other news media honestly claim they are doing South Africa a service by treating the Cato Manor unit, or its ultimate commander, Major-General Johan Booysen, as the victims in this sordid story?