/ 23 February 1990

In this month of reform, six people die in custody

A seventh person, Albert Simelane, died shortly after being briefly detained by police in Tembisa in November last year. Four of the seven – Nixon Phiri (16), Michael Zungu (20), Simon Tshabalala (22), and Simelane (30) – died in ”suspicious circumstances” where allegations of police violence have been made. 

  • Post mortem results revealed that Phiri, the Khutsong youth who died on January 16 while being interrogated by police, suffered a brain haemorrhage caused by external injuries and shock. Three friends in custody with Phiri at Welverdiend police station allege they were beaten, slapped, punched, given electric shocks and forced to sign statements saying they wert’ guilty of arson. ”I heard Nixon screaming in the same way as I did when I was being shocked, then everything went silent,” said one youth. Another claimed he saw Phiri being taken outside and then brought back to a room with his face wet. Lawyers for his family have written to the state president requesting a judicial enquiry into Phiri’s death.
  • An official post mortem said Zungu – a school pupil at Mtubatuba, Natal – had died by strangulation. His family denied the police version that he had strangled himself with his shoelace after being taken off in a police van on January 29 to Mtubatuba police station. Witnesses said in sworn statements that Zungu (after a dispute about school fees) was beaten by police before his death and then thrown unconscious · and barefoot into the back of a police van. This was the last they saw of him. 
  • Friends of Simelane say he was brought to his home in Tembisa by 21 policemen on November 20 having been badly assaulted. A friend who visited him in hospital, Jane Ntuli, said in a sworn affidavit: ”Alfred said the police bad beaten him up … sprayed a substance on his face which inflamed his skin … and put a sack over his face while a policeman stood on his face and others kicked him.” 
  • Tshabalala died week after being held as a possible robbery suspect at Grootvlei police station on the East Rand. According to police representative Captain Eugene Opperman, Tshabalala allegedly resisted arrest last Tuesday and ”force had to be used by police, who round stolen property in his possession”.  
  • Another death occurred the same day at Hillbrow police station. When Uys Namane, 35, who was held for possession of dagga, complained of breathing problems, police allegedly alerted the – ambulance service. However, be died before the ambulance arrived. 

Other reports of deaths in police custody include two people who were found hanged in their cells. The first was 20-year-old Sizwe Sithole, allegedly the father of Zinzi Mandela’s child. Zinzi is the daughter of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. A commission of inquiry was opened almost immediately after his death on January 30 at John Vorster Square police station, and the report, compiled by Justice R Goldstone, will be submitted to State President FW de Klerk next week. Earlier this week Mandla Manana, 27, was found dead in a Kempton Park police cell, banging from a piece of cloth attached to the inner security door. 

Manana was being held on charges of armed robbery and attempted murder. ‘A representative of the Detainees Aid Centre, Audrey Coleman, said the organinisation condemned the alarming escalation of deaths in police custody: ”We call for the same judicial enquiries into these incidents as occurred with Sithole.” Police representative Opperman said the fact that so many people had died in police custody over such short space of time was ”co-incidence”. 

The official police reply is as follows: deaths referred to are being investigated and upon completion the case dockets will be forwarded to the relevant judicial authority for decision. ”Deaths in police custody are of course also regretted by the SA Police and we do everything in our power to prevent this. We give the assurance that all these cases are being thoroughly investigated.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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