This week, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) went to great lengths to explain why the case against the police officers who killed protester Andries Tatane in 2011 had fallen apart and the seven accused were acquitted. The NPA must be commended for providing this explanation, because the layperson is baffled as to why such a case could fail: after all, the offence was seen on national and later international television – several policemen beating an unarmed man to death. It looked like an open-and-shut case.
Essentially, the NPA says the prosecution was let down by unreliable witnesses, chiefly the two brought to court to identify the police officers seen assaulting Tatane. Two witnesses changed their testimony, claiming they could not, in fact, identify the perpetrators; a third was called but his testimony, says the NPA, was so contradictory that it was dismissed. All three witnesses, said the court, were evasive and unreliable.
If three dodgy witnesses were all the NPA had in its arsenal as it went into battle, it's understandable that the case didn't stand up. The NPA says it started out with 35 witness statements, 19 from members of the South African Police Service and four from what is now the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. From those 35 witnesses, the prosecutors came up with a mere three who claimed, initially at least, to be able to identify the killers. In court, the NPA found they could not, in fact, do so – or were no longer willing to.
The NPA seems to have been woefully underprepared for this case. There was no forensic evidence, no reference to a commanding officer who might be thought to carry ultimate responsibility, no attempt to identify the killers in any other way. Did the police and the prosecutors not do background checks on their witnesses? One at least was already under investigation on other charges.
The NPA has certainly made a hash of this case – a very important case, one of those in which the police force of a democratic South Africa is accused of doing very much what its apartheid-era predecessor did on a regular basis: using extremely heavy-handed tactics on ordinary protesting citizens.
The perception will persist that the state, its police officers and prosecutors were never really very keen on nailing the perpetrators of the Tatane murder. Civil society organisations (and Tatane was an active member of one such body) will view the outcome as proof that the government is highly intolerant of protest against it – and that its kneejerk response is violence. Moreover, many will feel that the outcome of the Tatane case shows that the state is unable or unwilling to police itself, a situation that, first, puts all citizens at risk without offering them any recourse and, second, could end in a police state. That is a state to which South Africa does not wish to return.