Torture is not dead in our society. Three drug dealers and a car guard talk to the M&G about their brutal experiences with the police.
Most people think of torture as part of a bygone era – a painful relic of apartheid. But experts say that torture in South Africa is alive and well. Only, most South Africans don’t realise what it is.
In the minds of most South Africans, torture is confined to dark, hollow basements or the shrouded precincts of Guantanamo Bay. Torture victims are high-powered, connected people with valuable information, or enemies of the state. They befall the kind of perverse atrocities that you see in the scenes of action movies.
But according to South African researchers and experts, torture is much more common than we think. It takes place in our suburbs, our prisons, our detention centres, and even our schools.
“After apartheid, people found out more and more about how much torture existed in South Africa. But when you speak about torture now, most people say: ‘Does that still exist?’” said Dominique Dix-Peek, researcher for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).
Legally speaking, only an officer of state is capable of “torturing” someone. In other words, one civilian cannot torture another. But a brutal policeman, a prison warden who beats inmates or even a public school teacher who allows severe bullying in a school could be considered a perpetrator.
Of 720 deaths in police custody reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), over the 2011/2012 period, only 1% were reported as having been tortured. Experts believe that actual torture incidents are much higher than that, and are vastly under-reported.
One of the reasons is that today’s torture victims are usually on the wrong side of the law themselves. Torture victims are not the heroic freedom-fighters of the apartheid-era. Instead, they are mostly unemployed drug dealers, alcoholics, gamblers and non-nationals, says Dix-Peek.
“The people who are being tortured aren’t people we like,” says Clare Ballard, attorney and researcher for the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape. “It is very difficult to garner any sympathy for them.” Even those who aren’t criminals are usually so poor that they lack the resources to get legal assistance. And so their stories go largely unheard.
In the first of a series on torture, the Mail & Guardian speaks to three drug dealers and a car attendant who are trapped in the cycle of unemployment, crime and torture.