Analysis

Torture is still widespread in South Africa

Danny Titus

June 26 is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. There should be no more police torture in South Africa, yet it continues.

The South African police are regularly accused of torture in court. (Gallo)

Freedom from torture is the one human right on which there can be no limitation. There are just no circumstances that allow any person to subject another human being to any acts of torture; to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This is the one right that can be given effect with so much ease. Just do not torture. The courts will not accept evidence based upon torture; you are opening yourself to litigation.

South Africa has recently passed legislation, the Prevention of Torture Act 2013, yet in our democratic, non-racial, non-sexist South Africa, torture continues.

The Independent Policing Investigative Directorate (IPID) is specifically charged with the investigation of torture by law enforcement officials. Two general responses are heard today: one, that torture belongs to the apartheid era and two, that should it occur today, it is justified against criminals who have no respect for the law.

I page through Elaine Bing’s book Unmaking of the Torturer (better called, in the Afrikaans edition, Ek Het Gemartel I Have Tortured). A lot has been said about the victims of torture, but here it is about torturers themselves: three torturers from the South African police. One person even speaks of how he enjoyed the torturing. Others suffer guilt, shame and serious relationship problems. There is nothing about “I had to follow orders”. It was as if they knew what was expected of them. To be white was to be the boss, to be superior.

That was then. What about now? What motivates the torturers in post-1994 South Africa? I spoke to a law professor who also deals with cases of victims of torture. He said he could take me, on a Thursday evening or a Friday any one of three or four police stations where the torture continues. At one station, they do the “roast chicken”: your legs are pulled up, your arms over your legs and a broomstick put between your arms and legs. Your hands are then tied up and then they do with you what they want. At another station, it is the “sausage method”, where you are rolled up in a carpet or blanket …

And so the law professor continued, talking about the different torture methods he has pointed out in court already. He spoke about a forensic pathologist with a special camera to take pictures of the inner ear: you see the marks of the pliers on the ears of the victims where electrical shocks have been administered.

It is not a matter, any more, of “I have tortured” – it is “I am torturing”. The professor showed me the medical evidence he has presented to the court and gave me contact numbers of the specialists who can testify on this. The professor’s latest case was in February 2014.

State attorneys are also a valuable source of information. They have to deal with the civil claims on torture. I went to see the head of a well-known investigative institution. He feels we need to achieve balance in our society. The police are completely demoralised by all the focus on individual rights. What about the police’s rights? What about the protest actions that are so violent? What about the responsibilities of communities?

And then he switches over to the corruption and criminality, also in the police. I know of attorneys who are paid with cocaine, he says. I cringe. It is about the ebbing away of our country’s values. “The bad guys are winning,” he says. And it is in this context that the police must do their work.

May we still speak of human rights to the police? Yes, we must.

Dr Danny Titus is a commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission, responsible for torture and police brutality matters

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