Police have been accused of physically torturing a community activist and his relatives in northern KwaZulu-Natal with rubber tubes and electric shocks.
The activist, Kevin Kunene, was hospitalised with internal injuries and a burst eardrum. Kunene is founding chairman of the KwaMbonambi Environmental Group.
He says his injuries were caused by policemen from the Umfolozi Public Order Policing (POP) Division (previously known as the Internal Stability Unit) who, he says, abducted him and three relatives late last month from their homes at 2am, beginning a 14 -hour ordeal.
“They took me out of bed in Esikhawini [township outside Empangeni] and started torturing me with a big rubber tube they put over your face so you suffocate,” said Kunene.
Kunene said the police then shunted the four men between several places in a police bakkie and a Nyala, alternately beating, kicking and rubber-tubing them. “They told me today is my last day—- that I’m going to die.
“They said they wanted to know who I am giving weapons to. They say they know I’ve stolen weapons,” explained Kunene.
Kunene said he was due to meet members of the firearms unit later that day with his lawyer to discuss firearm allegations made during a January 15 attack on his home in his absence. He alleged this was the third time he had been abducted and tortured by police since last August.
Dr Ganas Perumal, a pathologist hired by the Independent Medico-Legal Unit in Durban to examine the four men’s injuries, said they were “certainly consistent with torture”.
Advocate Neville Melville’s Complaints Investigation Unit is investigating four charges of assault following the incident.
Melville said members of his unit had traced Kunene to the POP base after receiving a complaint from violence monitors, and secured his release.
Umfolozi POP unit commander, Superintendent Christo Pelser, denied the allegations, saying: “[Kunene] was here in my office because he’s a member of the community assisting the police. He was fit when he left here. Actually he wanted to stay with us but they forced him to go away from here.”
Kunene says police “told me if I said I was tortured I would never come out of the ISU centre, and even if I did they would follow us and shoot us”. He claimed police offered him a R5 900 bribe and promised him a firearm.
Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas objected to Pelser’s promotion last year to the rank of lieutenant-colonel (now superintendent), citing his failure to act to protect ANC supporters against attack in instances where he had been forewarned. Pelser denied he or anyone in his unit had ever tortured or abducted anyone.
Kunene’s allegations are the latest in a spate of torture allegations facing the unit. In January 1994 an assault complaint was filed against the unit after six African National Congress-aligned youths were allegedly abducted and tortured by the unit at the Security Office of Richards Bay Minerals. According to the Network of Independent Monitors’ (NIM) 1994 report Breaking with the Past?, the youths were tortured to extract “confessions” of illegal weapon possession. In February 1994, the ANC alleged Fanie Ngema died after torture by the unit.
In January 1995, NIM alleged four men were assaulted by ISU members.
While not personally implicated in the torture, Pelser’s role in political violence in the area has been repeatedly questioned by violence monitors.