Bullies in blue: When cops stoop to criminal tactics
Police brutality has spiralled out of control, with torture and alleged executions becoming commonplace. The Sunday Times investigates SA's police gone rogue
The road to Msinga Top takes you through stony valleys and past scattered settlements rising high into mountains where goats nibble on sparse scrub.
Retired teacher Ntombana Malinga has lived in this remote corner of KwaZulu-Natal all her life. At 98, she thought she'd seen it all. But on June 3, her world imploded.
Just after midnight, three constables in uniform burst into her grandson Philani Malinga's room. They cuffed his hands behind him, shackled his legs and dragged him to a rondavel. They never told her why.
When she tried to follow, they threw her to the ground. After they left, she went to investigate. "All of a sudden I heard Philani's voice: 'Gogo, I'm dying. Gogo, I'm dying.'"
His brother loaded him into his car to drive him to hospital. They did not get far. "He died just here," says Ntombana, pointing to a driveway. "What did he do to deserve such a cruel death? If maybe it's legal for the police to kill people, then I've got nothing to say."
A postmortem found Philani died from "suffocation and assault", says the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. He was probably tortured to death. The constables were charged with murder but are out on bail.
Philani Malinga's death is not an isolated incident. According to the latest official statistics, in the past year police killed 423 people, with 244 others dying in custody, assaulted 3711 people and tortured 145.
block_quotes_start Everybody in the police station, all the officers, know what is happening and probably approve what is happening block_quotes_end
The hardest-hit provinces are Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Civil claims against the police for misconduct totalled R9.5-billion in the past year.
Almost all categories of police brutality are increasing. Torture is up by 86%. But human rights lawyers and researchers interviewed say this is the tip of the iceberg because most victims are too afraid to report the crime and torture is often classified as assault.
"Go to any street corner in a township in Johannesburg and ask the young men if anyone has been tortured," says Professor Malose Langa, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand specialising in police brutality. "That's exactly what I did. I was shocked. Almost everyone either knew someone who'd been tortured or had been tortured themselves."
He documented his findings in a recently released report for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
His findings were supported by torture victims interviewed by the Sunday Times.
In May, Jackson Maponya*, 25, was tortured by being smothered repeatedly with a latex glove pulled over his head while being doused with water.
Torture is routinely used at his local police station, he says. "That day I was tortured I saw another one who was tortured. If they have that special room where they will take you ... This is a common thing and many people are not aware."
He is suing the police but many torture victims are too scared to do so. "I've spoken to a lot of people who are too afraid of retaliation from their torturers," he says. "So they get away with murder."
Sipho Siyanda* was 12 in 2011 when police picked him up at school and took him to the toilets at the local police station. They ordered him to strip to his underwear, threw a black rubbish bag over his head and repeatedly tightened a belt around his neck while beating him. His family has won a civil claim against the police.
Andile Ncube* was arrested in Sharpeville in 2010. During his interrogation, which lasted four and a half hours, his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was smothered with a plastic bag and rubber tube while being beaten savagely. He won a claim against the police this year.
This is just small sampling of what is happening every day in police stations throughout South Africa, especially to poor, young black men in townships.
"I've been dealing with torture cases involving police in Soweto for at least 20 years," says human rights lawyer Peter Jordi. "The same techniques, fundamentally, are being repeated." He describes obtaining secret civil warrants entitling him to search police stations with a sheriff of the court.
"I have found pickaxe handles. I've found these electric shock machines in the ... top drawer of someone's desk."
The "sausage roll method" is common. "They wrap you in a blanket so your head is out one side, your feet out the other. You are rendered immobile."
Suspects are then smothered. "It could be a dustbin bag, a plastic shopping packet, it could be a condom, maybe it's a latex glove. It's the same as waterboarding, where you're drowning, you can't breathe."
block_quotes_start He said if I thought police brutality was over I should think again. I could die in the cell and he would still have his job block_quotes_end
Sometimes suspects are also given electric shocks. "There's the 'roast chicken method' where you are like a roast chicken on a spit," Jordi says. A suspect's hands are cuffed around his knees. A pickaxe handle is placed under the knees and the suspect is suspended between two tables "while they give you electric shocks" .
Torture is illegal but Jordi believes it is sanctioned to get information. "I have no doubt that everybody in the police station, all the police officers, know what is happening and probably approve what is happening."
One of the most shocking cases we have investigated was a string of suspect killings allegedly committed by the Cato Manor organised crime unit in Durban, under the ultimate command of provincial Hawks head Major-General Johan Booysen.
Our investigation has established that four squad members close to Booysen - Willie Olivier, Anton Lockem, Eugene van Tonder and Paul Mostert - are linked to dozens of suspicious killings stretching back more than a decade. All have been indicted for murder.
In just four years, between 2007 and 2011, the four men were involved in 18 suspect shootings that led to 28 deaths.
In six weeks in 2008, the Cato Manor squad killed five leaders of a taxi association and one of their bodyguards in four suspect shootings. Within a year they had killed its chairman, Bongani Mkhize, and two prominent association members in three more suspect shootings.
Mkhize's family has since won a civil suit against the police.
Sources inside or close to the unit, as well as victims, told us it routinely tortured suspects. Video footage showing members torturing a hijacking suspect at their offices in 2004 supports this view.
Twenty-seven detectives from the Cato Manor squad, among them the four men closest to Booysen, are expected to go on trial next year facing 116 charges, including 28 counts of murder.
Last year, in court, Booysen got all charges against him dropped. He was also cleared in a disciplinary hearing. But in September, he was suspended for related offences.
Police Minister Nathi Nhleko denies that the high and increasing number of assaults, alleged murders, rapes and torture cases shows he has lost control, but concedes police brutality is "a serious problem". He has set up a panel of experts in line with recommendations of the Marikana inquiry.
A key intervention will be training to change the mindset of police who believe torturing and even executing suspects is a short cut to cracking cases.
"Under apartheid, you had a police service that was constitutionally mandated and sanctioned to be brutal," Nhleko says. "The bulk of the police members we have were schooled and cultured in a particular way before 1994."
Nhleko's words are scant comfort to Philani Malinga, Bongani Mkhize, Jackson Maponya, Sipho Siyanda, Andile Ncube and thousands like them.
"I will never trust the police again," says Philani's grandmother, Ntombana. "When I see a police officer I see a criminal."
Booysen, Van Tonder, Mostert, Olivier and Lockem declined to be interviewed.
sub_head_start CASE STUDY 1: JACKSON MAPONYA sub_head_end
Jackson Maponya* was arrested in May for a kidnapping that turned out to be bogus.
His interrogator covered his face with a latex glove while an accomplice pinned down his hands.
"You think we playing? We don't have time to play," his torturer told him. "Today you're gonna tell us the truth. We'll make you tell us the truth."
Maponya, 25, lives with his parents in Soweto. He was forced to abandon his studies at the University of Limpopo when he could not afford the fees and now does voluntary work coaching soccer in primary schools.
He had never had any run-ins with the police before his arrest in May.
He was taken to the holding cells. "There's a room with like a sink. There's a chair in the middle of that room."
One detective fetched a pair of latex gloves. Then they started playing good cop, bad cop. One kept saying: "Just tell the truth, I don't want this man to hurt you."
Maponya says he told them he knew nothing.
Then the glove came out. "He put it over my head. It covered my face," he says. The other detective held his hands down. Every time his torturer removed the glove, he asked: "Are you ready to talk?" Then he pulled it over his face again. Water from the basin was poured over his head.
This continued "for quite a long time. I felt dizzy. I couldn't stand up any more," says Maponya.
Eventually the glove broke. His torturer threatened to use two gloves and give him electric shocks.
"This was just a warm-up for him. He said if I thought police brutality was over I should think again. I could die in the cell and he would still have his job but that would be the end of me."
When Maponya was released his neck was bruised and he suffered chest pains.
"I couldn't sleep at night. My dad had to sleep with me in my room because I kept having nightmares. I kept seeing this police's face," he says.
"All those things that he was saying to me. I didn't matter to him. I was just nothing. He could kill me and get away with it. Whenever I close my eyes, I see his picture."
Maponya tried to lay a charge against his torturers at the same police station but the case went nowhere. Other officers tried to dissuade him. "They said: 'Just go home.'"
Now he lives in fear.
"This might happen again. They know where I live. They know my face."
The experience traumatised him. Maponya has become withdrawn and often snaps at his partner. "Most of the time I just like to be alone. I just close myself up."
sub_head_start CASE STUDY 2: SIPHO SIYANDA sub_head_end
The police picked up Sipho Siyanda* at school and ordered him into their van. He was 12.
When they arrived at the police station he was taken to the toilets and told to strip to his underwear. "I cried. I said I don't know what I have done," he recalls four years later.
He was told he had been accused of stealing a woman's ID book at their local church.
His interrogators covered his head with a rubbish bag and tied a belt around his neck. "He wrap my neck so that I can't breathe. For five minutes. Then they do it again," he says. "I was crying. Thinking I'm going to die. It's over with my life. I told them they must stop because I didn't do nothing."
After repeatedly torturing him, they took him outside and threatened to lock him in the police dog pen. "They said: 'They will bite and you will tell the truth.' I said: 'I don't know what you are talking about.'"
He was driven back to school after three hours.
His mother tried to open a case at the same police station, but the docket disappeared.
She tried the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, but received no help. Eventually she won a civil claim.
His interrogator was fired after facing several more complaints of assault and torture. This provided little comfort. "They are killers. They are murderers," says his mother. "They should be arrested."
*Not their real names
- This investigation will be screened as a documentary called ‘Echoes of Apartheid’ on Al Jazeera (click on the link to watch the documentary).
- Next week: More skeletons in the Cato Manor ‘death squad’ case