Public claims against police exceed R14bn

After another damages claim against the police was finalised in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court on Monday, information emerged that civil claims against the police nationally has exceeded the R14-billion mark.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, better known as the Durban shack dwellers' movement, won a R165 000 settlement against the police following an assault on two of its members in 2006.

According to Africa Check, the previously reported number of total claims against the police, R7-billion, which emerged from a Parliamentary reply, is actually only half true.

On April 16, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa told Parliament that claims against South African Police Service members totalled just over R7-billion for the 2011/12 financial year. But this initial figure did not include the number of claims still unresolved emanating from the 2010/11 financial year.

The website pointed out that Mthethwa was technically accurate in his response. The discrepancy in the two figures arose from the way the Parliamentary question was phrased.

The Mail & Guardian previously reported that the police had paid out R334-million in damages to claimants since 2010.

'Principle of the case'
On Monday, Abahlali baseMjondolo's secretary Bandile Mdlalose said through a statement that while the amount to be paid out by the police in this case did not match the total amount of suffering incurred by ordinary citizens at the hands of the police, "the issue here is the principle of the case".

"The dignity of the poor will be realised sooner or later," Mdlalose added.

The police were ordered to pay R165 000 in damages to the three complainants, which include a member of the Kennedy Road informal settlement, although the amount was agreed upon between the organisation and the police. The police will also pay the costs of the trial.

In September 2006, two Abahlali members, Sbu Zikode and Philani Zungu, were arrested on the way to a radio debate with KwaZulu-Natal's minister for housing – now the province's health minister – Mike Mabuyakhulu.

The charges against them were dropped and they were never prosecuted. Shortly after the arrests, members of the Kennedy informal settlement gathered at their community hall, with the intention of marching to the police station where Zikode and Zungu were being held. Police arrived at the community hall to break up the protest.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) which represented Abahlali in the case, alleged that police used live ammunition and teargas on the crowd of protestors. A domestic worker was allegedly shot in the leg.

'Worrying' trend
Zungu and Zikode alleged that they were assaulted at the police station, sustaining injuries to their heads and upper bodies.

Teboho Mosikili, Seri's director of litigation, said a "worrying" trend had emerged in a "string" of cases involving community-based activists, where police first shot and asked questions later.

"It is important that the minister of police is held accountable for the wanted violence often committed by police officials," said Mosikili.

Mthethwa's spokesperson Zweli Mnisi said judgments against the police were taken seriously as they impacted the police's ability to engage with communities.

"We always get concerned if there are any allegations that officials have made a wrongful arrest or if people have been assaulted. That is why we have emphasised that police management must strengthen command and control, particularly at a local branch level. It is not just the financial impact of these judgments that concerns us – it is also the reputation of the police that is at stake. This is why the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was strengthened to give it investigative powers. [Most] police departments in the world have the power to detain, search, and arrest, and there must be checks and balances in place … In South Africa, we are mainly involved in community policing, so these judgments are very serious to us because we can't ask the community to work with us when some of our members behave like this," Mnisi said. 

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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