The hidden world of torture in South Africa
Most people think of the dark days of apartheid or the scenes from Abu Ghraib. But torture is right here at home, writes Thalia Holmes.
Brandon* squats on his haunches in the early morning sun, which is streaming onto the bald ground of a vacant lot. The hood of his black sweater is pulled up over the black knitted beanie on his head. His bottom lip has burst, leaving a small patch of fresh blood. His scarred hands are clasped together and his bloodshot hazel eyes assume a faraway look. He is ready to tell his story.
"Before they beat you, they throw water over you, because they know it will be more painful. They make you take your clothes off. They leave you with only your shirt.
"They take some sticks from the tree. Then they take the cable ties – those long ones: the black ones or the blue ones. They beat you over the head and here by your neck," he says, pointing to his larynx. "Then they make you push your chest out and they beat you on the chest."
Brandon's fingers tighten; he winces. "They beat the hell out of me – like I'm not a man, you know? Like I'm a piece of paper. The way they beat me, I told myself: 'God, I'm dying today.'"
The police call Brandon "ganja man". He sells marijuana – skunk, Swazi, chronic, white widdle and hash. For every R50 of marijuana he sells he makes R10. "Me, I'm not selling drugs, I'm selling ganja," he says.
His days are filled with the normal anxieties of a salesman: getting new customers, keeping old ones, clearing stock. But he also spends much of his time looking over his shoulder, because each day for Brandon is filled with the threat of beating, suffocation, electric shocks and shooting at the hands of the police.
Dark days of apartheid
When we think of torture, most of us think of the dark days of apartheid and military-induced depravities such as those reported out of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. But, according to South African researchers and experts, torture is not confined to distant lands. It takes place in our neighbourhoods, prisons, detention centres and even our schools. And it happens more often than we think.
Torture is often thought of as inhumane treatment inflicted by one party on another. In fact, the word has a very specific definition, set out by the United Nations.
Catherine Atoki, the African Union's chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, says that torture is an intentional, illegal act that causes pain and suffering. It could be done for various reasons: to extract information, to bribe someone or to punish a person. But the guiding principle is that "it must be committed by an officer of state", says Atoki. In other words, one civilian cannot torture another. But a brutal policeman, a prison warden who beats inmates or even a school teacher who allows severe bullying in a school could be considered a perpetrator.
"People don't know that it happens," says Dominique Dix-Peek, a researcher for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.
"After apartheid, people found out more and more about how much torture existed in South Africa. But when you speak to the ordinary citizen about torture now, most people say: 'Does that still exist?'"
Alwyn* has been selling weed for 15 years. His sunken eyes are lined with thick black lashes, creating a kohl-like effect around his watchful gaze, and the commanding tone in which he speaks belies his thin, small frame.
"They take jumper cables, they put it on the battery of their car, and they put it on me. They put it deep into my flesh, here by my stomach," he says, pointing to the lower part of his belly. "And they shock me. In about five minutes, I am out. Then they wake me up again with water. 'Are you gonna tell me?' [they shout]. What must I do now? I say I don't know, because I don't know.
Prone to becoming victims
"They do it again. I'm unconscious for five minutes. After the five minutes, they wake me again with water. They ask me: 'Are you going to tell us where the stuff is?' Me, I say, 'I don't know!' So they do it again."
Each story of torture is as personal as the life it disrupts. And yet, according to Dix-Peek, some social groups are more prone to becoming victims. Typical torture victims are young, unemployed men who are in trouble with the law. They are often involved in drugs, alcohol abuse, gambling or gangsterism. Other victims are foreigners, easily targeted because of their precarious legal status. Or they may be people who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: those who hang out with the unemployed youth or foreign targets.
Brandon, who sells marijuana on the street, says he has been beaten and tortured repeatedly by the police. During one incident, he thought he was going to die. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
"The people who are being tortured aren't people we like," says Clare Ballard, an attorney and a researcher for the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape.
They are people like Isaak* (61), who lives on the streets. At night he sleeps on a piece of cardboard and covers himself with two blankets. In the morning, he washes his face at a nearby water pump and then walks to the street corner where Brandon and Alwyn sell weed. He supplements his government pension by working as a car guard.
"I make money by looking after the cars. I get R2 or R3 to buy food for me. I'm not selling ganja. Nooit. I never sold it," he says, his wrinkled face furrowed. "One time the cops came with a kombi there. They said 'Ja, you're selling drugs. Get in the car.'"
The men who were selling marijuana ran away. Isaak was all alone. The policemen pushed him into the back of their van, he says, and drove to a place nearby. They pulled a tight plastic bag over his head and kept it on until he was desperately gasping for breath. When they pulled it off, Isaak insisted: "I'm not selling! Me, I'm just a car parker there."
A back and forth of accusations and protestations ensued. Eventually, the police capitulated, bundled Isaak back into their van and dropped him off at the corner where they found him.
Reflecting on the experience, Isaak's eyes cloud over. "That day, I wanted to die," he says.
Deaths as a result of police action
There are no accurate torture statistics in South Africa, mainly because no large-scale study on its prevalence has been carried out. However, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate receives complaints regarding human rights abuses involving police officers.
During the 2011-2012 reporting period, the directorate received 488 complaints of deaths as a result of police action. (This period did not include the deaths in Marikana). In more than half of the cases, a suspect was killed during an arrest. During that same period, there were 720 reports of deaths in police custody. Of those, about 50% were shot with a police firearm and 13% were assaulted. Only 1% were reported as having been tortured.
But, in reality, experts believe that the incidence of torture is significantly higher, though there is no way to tell what it really is, says Dix-Peek. For different reasons, torture is often surrounded by a deafening silence.
The first – and most jarring – reason that torture goes unreported, says Dix-Peek, is that it is tacitly encouraged in our society.
Torture victims often begin as petty criminals. And "people want crime dealt with decisively", she says. So, if a drug dealer or a gangster gets beaten to a pulp by the police, many people feel that the crime justified the treatment. Rhetoric by government ministers and the police about the "war on crime" gives the police a free mandate to deal with crime in whatever manner they want to, says Dix-Peek. So, in fact, "torture and violence are encouraged by the public", she says.
According to Atoki, most torture victims are disempowered because of their poverty.
"They don't have the wherewithal to bring these acts to the attention of the relevant authorities. They don't even have access to legal services for bills. The situation in Africa is exacerbated by our justice system, which encourages impunity and the lack of access to legal aid."
High-tech forms of torture
Dix-Peek adds: "A lot of people who do report torture don't see any results and, because of that, they're less likely to report anything in the future."
Another reason for the silence is that torture methods are becoming harder to trace or prove.
"As with the advancement of technology in everything, the nature of torture also seems to be advancing to an extent in which the signs have maybe become invisible," Atoki says.
Previously, the main method of torture came in some form of beating, which leaves visible marks on the body.
"But gradually, you get reports of some very high-tech forms of torture. When the fellow stands up, there is no visible sign," says Atoki.
The current outrage surrounding the torture techniques depicted in the controversial film directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, highlights this: the movie's protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain) uses the invisible technique of waterboarding to extract information from her captives.
According to Poonitha Naidoo, co-ordinator for the Medical Rights Advocacy Network, the most popular form of police torture in South Africa is called tubing. "It is basically suffocation. They will pull down thick rubber gloves, or plastic bags, over the face of a person so that he suffocates. Some of them lose consciousness."
The plastic bags or tubing may be used with or without water, as Brandon says.
'You can't even scream'
"They take two plastic bags – a Shoprite bag and a Pick n Pay bag –you know, those thick ones. Then they put water inside and put it over your head. The water comes into your nose and your mouth. As soon as you think to breathe in again, the plastic bag comes right to your nose. You can't do nothing, nothing! You can't even scream. You can scream as hard as you can, but no one can hear you," says Brandon, his voice cracking.
"It leaves no marks," says Naidoo.
Through the advocacy network, she and others help torture victims take legal action against their perpetrators. "In each case, we found that the medical evidence was what we needed for anyone to actually look at these cases," she says. "We need to document all of their injuries and place this in court."
But with the police using invisible methods of torture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this.
All five torture victims who spoke to the Mail & Guardian complained of tubing. When approached for comment about their claims, South African Police Service spokesperson Brigadier Neville Malila expresses grave concern. "These are serious allegations," he says. "The South African Police Service does not condone torture as an organisation." However, it cannot investigate the complaints without medical evidence and case numbers, he says.
"As soon as they catch you, they remove their name [tags] because they don't want you to see who they are," says Brandon. "Because they know that they are not allowed to do those things they are doing to you. They are not allowed to put plastics over you, they are not allowed to put jumper cables, they are not allowed to beat you with cable ties and sticks. So they remove their names."
Of the five victims interviewed for this article, four allege that the police solicited bribes. All of them paid.
Fight against corruption
"A lot of policemen ask for money," says Alwyn. They come here, they search me. They don't find anything. They say: 'Give me R50.' And I say 'I don't have R50 to give you. Why do I need to give you R50? I'm working.'
"They say, 'Hey listen here. I've got a big bag of ganja. If you don't give me the R50, I will put you in the police van. Then this [pointing to the bag of ganja] will become yours. We'll catch you with this.' So me, I think of my children, I take out a R50 and I give it to them."
In response to this, Malila says: "We would like more evidence to investigate these complaints. The fight against corruption is one of the South African Police Service's key objectives and we have put measures in place to root out corruption in the organisation."
But in order to root out corruption, one must understand its roots: something very difficult to do in a cycle of poverty and crime.
At the age of 23, Brandon was still attending grade 10 at a Johannesburg township high school. He lived nearby with his parents and younger brother and sister. Then his father was killed in a car accident. He decided to drop out of school to earn money to support his family. He started selling weed soon afterwards.
"I did really like school, but after my father died … someone had to take care of my family."
Alwyn fathered his first child when he was 15 years old. Now, he and his wife have four children: their oldest (17), twins (12) and a seven-year-old. Alwyn was 17 when he started selling.
Cycle of unemployment
"I started because I didn't get a job and I have children. They have to eat," he says.
"My family is scared. They are always telling me I must [stop] selling ganja."
And yet he finds himself at the familiar street corner every day. "I know it's wrong to sell but there's nothing I can do. My people have to eat. I don't have a job. If I could get a job it would be better."
The drug dealers are all too aware of the cycle of unemployment within which they suffer. But experts feel torture victims are locked in another helpless sequence as well – the dark cycle of torture.
The M&G began research for this story in July last year. A few days after talking to the M&G, Brandon was arrested for dealing marijuana. Unable to pay for bail, he was kept in a holding cell for four months awaiting trial. His court date was postponed four times. Each time, the police officer who laid the charge failed to produce evidence in court. Eventually, the case was thrown out of court. Brandon managed to get home in time for Christmas.
About a week before Brandon got home, Alwyn was allegedly sent to prison.
"It is good that he went to jail," says Brandon. "He assaulted his father."
At the time of publication, Alwyn's father had allegedly dropped the assault charges and Alwyn was back on the same street corner peddling marijuana.
Between the two of them, Alwyn and Brandon count more than 15 torture incidents. Neither of them has ever laid a formal complaint.
* Not their real names