Oops! Mbalula red-faced as arrest triumph becomes PR nightmare
The police - and their boss, minister Fikile Mbalula - have been left red-faced and caught in a PR nightmare now that the arrest of 10 people, touted as a breakthough in the investigation of a Cape Town massacre, has turned out to be a monumental blunder.
Last Friday night police in the Western Cape detained eight men - and later another two - near the Huguenot Tunnel. They made them lie in the road, trussed up with cable ties, and sent out a press release and pictures about their "protracted investigation".
They said multiple units and "intelligence operatives" had "pounced" on a vehicle and arrested suspects whom they suggested were linked to weekend shootings in Marikana, in Cape Town, in which 11 people were killed.
Mbalula arrived at the scene of the arrests to make his own road-side interrogations. He later posted pictures of the men on Twitter and boasted about the "midnight criminal space shake up" to his one million Twitter followers.
But The Times has established - through interviews with six of the "suspects", all of whom have been released without charge - that they are all members of a family transporting a coffin containing a dead relative to his funeral in the Eastern Cape.
They say they were made to lie on the ground for three hours while the police waited for Mbalula to arrive.
Now the men are vowing to sue the police for wrongful arrest and humiliation.
"All this time we were lying down, cuffed. Our family is also upset that the coffin was opened and searched," Zukisa Xakabantu told The Times this week.
The men were detained at Cape Town Central police station and freed on Sunday night.
Despite this - and despite the earlier police statement announcing that the arrest charges were being withdrawn on Saturday - Mbalula tweeted a picture of the men to his army of social-media followers on Monday.
The detained men say Mbalula's tweets have put their lives in danger.
"The statements that the minister has been making on social media did not help the situation. He tweeted our pictures and said our testicles must be crushed," said Zukile Skade.
His Toyota Avanza and trailer were confiscated by the police.
"The public commented about us at length on Facebook and Twitter," said Skade. "A lot of hurtful comments were made about me. I operate a taxi service. I also transport school- children. I am being linked to a massacre. I have received many calls since the day we were released. We want compensation."
Xakabantu was close to tears as he told of his humiliation. He said the police were adamant that he was one of the twins who are terrorising Marikana. "I have no issues with the police stopping people and searching, or even detaining them. But the way they treated me was totally inhumane and humiliating.
"The policemen undressed me in front of women for them to determine that I was not the twin they were looking for. Apparently the twin is uncircumcised and I am. That devastated me," he said.
Xakabantu said the group missed the funeral and lost the money they paid for transport.
"I don't know what is going to happen at work," said Luvo Nzulu, 22, a Cape Town security guard. "We don't feel safe in our community. We are worried that people have already labelled us tsotsis and might target us. Those who know us will understand our situation but those who live in Marikana might kill us.''
The men claim that they were beaten by the police and labelled "killers".
They showed bruises on their legs and necks which they claimed were inflicted by the police. They are raising money for a lawyer.
Mbalula's spokesman Vuyo Mhaga said the minister tweeted the picture in reaction to a Zapiro cartoon making fun of him.
Mhaga acknowledged that the tweet was published after the statement was withdrawn by provincial police - but said Mbalula could not comment on Thursday because he was locked in meetings.
Western Cape police spokesman Brigadier Novela Potelwa confirmed that a number of people were taken in for questioning on Friday evening and had since been released.
Constitutional law expert Shadrack Gutto said those arrested and paraded in public as criminals had a right to file charges against Mbalula and sue for reputational damage.
-with Ernest Mabuza