Questions raised about police violence
The Independent Complaints Directorate has confirmed that it is investigating the circumstances surrounding the fatal shooting last weekend of a 54-year-old farmer, Kobus de Vries, in Babanango in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
De Vries was surrounded by police at his farmhouse and shot in the neck. Police allege he was involved in two car accidents and an altercation with Eskom workers en route home and that after police surrounded his house he emerged armed with a shotgun and a .303 rifle. His family disputes this version.
ICD spokesperson Tiyani Samba confirmed that the police tactical response team (TRT), a crack violent-crime response unit created by police commissioner Bheki Cele in 2009, was involved in De Vries’s death.
Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa described the TRT at its first passing-out parade in December 2009 as “serving as additional arsenal” for the police force. Former deputy police minister Fikile Mbalula said last year that the TRT’s job is “not to negotiate, but to fight”.
Eleven TRT members are facing murder charges relating to the death of 40-year-old Nhlanhla Luthuli, who was allegedly bludgeoned to death in his Inanda home last October in front of his 11-year-old son.
According to an ICD statement, the policemen were alleged to have “tried to resuscitate the deceased by pouring water on him, but they failed. They then took him in a police vehicle and dumped him alongside a road, where he was found lying unconscious. He died on the way to hospital.” The police allegedly raided Luthuli’s home on suspicion that he had stolen a policeman’s gun.
Another case being investigated by the ICD is that of the death of 26-year-old Sandile Shangase in Pinetown outside Durban in November last year.
His father, Bheki Shangase, alleges that his son was returning home from work when he was “abducted” by TRT members in front of witnesses. Less than two hours later his battered body was found next to the roadside.
About 100 officers operate in each TRT unit, which services a cluster of seven police stations. One police source described them as “lacking guidance” and “highly competitive” because they are new.
David Bruce, senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said that interviews with the ICD raised questions about the professional ethics of units such as the TRT and the Organised Crime Unit, which has been investigating taxi-related violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Some of these units have been implicated in incidents where people are alleged to have been killed illegitimately,” said Bruce.
In a paper presented at an Institute for Security Studies conference late last year he noted that since 2005-06 there has been a 102% increase in fatal shootings by police, with a peak of 568 in 2008-09.
KwaZulu-Natal has “an abnormally high” share of these: 30% between 1997-98 and 2009-10. In the past five years the province had also registered a 173% increase in total shootings fatalities by police, from 75 to 205.
Police spokesperson Colonel Vish Naidoo said the SAPS did not countenance police acting in a manner that “exceeded the boundaries of the law”. In every instance when someone was killed because of police action proper reports and procedures were followed to ensure that no illegal activity had occurred.
“If the ICD findings suggest anything illegal we throw the book at them,” said Naidoo.
Naidoo would not comment on the individual cases involving the TRT but said the unit had made a “significant impact” in bringing down “ATM bombings, shopping mall robberies and cash-in-transit heists”.