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‘Why does KZN lead in police killings?’

In almost every year since 1997, when these figures were first recorded by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), more people were killed by police in KwaZulu-Natal than in any other province. The three years from April 2008 to March 2011, the years of the ascendancy of militarised policing in South Africa, were particularly notable.

In the year from April 2008 to March 2009, killings by police in the province suddenly escalated from 117 to 201 – an increase of 80%. In the following year, they increased further, to 210. Though they dropped to 187 in 2010-2011, this figure was still 60% above the 2007-2008 figure (117). In the three years from April 2008 to March 2011, KwaZulu-Natal accounted for 35% of all killings by police in South Africa.

These statistics are of interest in relation to the news that the National Prosecuting Authority has now taken its former acting head, Nomgcobo Jiba, to court on two counts of fraud and one of perjury relating to charges that were lodged against KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Major General Johan Booysen.

As the Mail & Guardian reported last week, Booysen is also lodging a claim for damages against the government for his arrest and prosecution. Along with members of the Cato Manor organised crime unit, Booysen was charged with operating a “death squad”.

When they appeared in court in August 2012, the 30 policemen, most of them from the unit, faced an indictment on 19 charges of murder covering the period from May 2008 to September 2011. They also faced charges of racketeering, attempted murder, housebreaking, assault, defeating the ends of justice and others.

Although the indictment against the other members of the Cato Manor unit still stands, in March 2014 Booysen managed to obtain a court order that the charges against him be withdrawn. In September 2014, a police inquiry also exonerated him of the disciplinary charges against him.

Booysen has argued that the charges against him were intended to stop him from pursuing corruption cases against various high-profile individuals, including politically connected Durban businessman Thoshan Panday.

But Booysen has not only maintained his own innocence. He is reported to have said that the other Cato Manor members were merely “collateral damage” in the campaign against him. According to Booysen, then, the charges against the other Cato Manor unit members are merely intended to give credibility to the charges against him.

The Cato Manor unit is part of the Durban organised crime unit, which was established as part of a restructuring process announced in January 2000 by Jackie Selebi, who had just been appointed national commissioner of the South African Police Service. Many of the detectives based in the murder and robbery and other specialised units were to be transferred to serve as detectives at police stations. But two new kinds of specialised unit, the organised crime units and the serious and violent crime units, were also created at the time. Former murder and robbery unit members were often transferred to the latter units.

In mid-2006 a further process of restructuring was launched, the focus of which was to close down the sub-provincial “area” level of the police. Because this was the level at which the serious and violent crime units were located, this meant their demise. Some members and cases were, however, transferred to the organised crime units.

The Cato Manor “branch” of the Durban organised crime unit has continued to be known as the serious and violent crimes unit. It is, therefore, the institutional descendant of the Durban murder and robbery unit. It is perhaps not insignificant that this unit was one of those named in a 1995 report, Breaking with the Past, which documented police human rights violations against alleged criminal suspects.

Torture was the dominant form of abuse in Gauteng and the Western Cape, as documented by the report. In KwaZulu-Natal, on the other hand, the main alleged human rights violation documented was a pattern of killings of people in suspicious circumstances. Of the 19 cases identified, a large number were linked to the Durban murder and robbery unit.

Those killed were often in the process of being arrested or were already in custody. In a number of cases, suspects who had been arrested were taken out of custody, allegedly for purposes of investigation. They were then killed in circumstances in which it was alleged they had suddenly attacked police or tried to flee.

One police officer told a commission of inquiry that it was common knowledge in the unit in which he worked that “suspects were ‘taken out'” and officers knew “when a killing was going to occur”. The suspect would then be shot “in self-defence by a member of the unit, while trying to escape”.

Other murder and robbery units in KwaZulu-Natal, including units in Pietermaritzburg, Empangeni and Port Shepstone, were also allegedly linked to these killings. Interestingly, members of the organised crime unit in Port Shepstone are also among those listed in the Cato Manor indictment.

An interview I conducted with KwaZulu-Natal ICD investigators in June 2010 suggested that these practices persisted in the Durban organised crime unit. The interviewee pointed to the high number of “questionable” killings involving the unit. The typical organised crime shooting, the interviewee said, involved going into a house; if there was a potential witness in the house, the witness would be taken outside. Then the suspect would be taken to a bedroom, where he would be reported to have “gone for his firearm” – and be shot.

Though the shootings were suspicious, the ICD was struggling to prove they were unlawful because they were consistently presented as shootings in self-defence. It was not only the same units but the same individual names that kept coming up again and again.

An unusual aspect of the ICD’s statistics for killings by police over the years from April 2008 to March 2011 is not just the high number of killings by police in KwaZulu-Natal but also the disproportionately high number of killings during “escapes”.

The ICD and its successor, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), record killings by police in a number of subcategories. The ICD had no manual prescribing how staff should distinguish between these categories.

Yet, despite the absence of clear guidelines, it seems reasonable to assume that killings classified as taking place “during escapes” would generally have been those of people already in custody. During the three years from April 2008 to March 2011 the ICD recorded 90 killings by police in KwaZulu-Natal in this category.

These accounted for 67% of the national total – and represented a dramatic increase on the 19 killings in this category recorded in KwaZulu-Natal over the preceding three-year period.

There were also dramatic increases in other categories. Killings “during arrest” increased to 285 in the three years to March 2011, as compared with 111 during the preceding three years. In the three years to March 2011 they represented 42% of killings recorded by the ICD nationally as “during arrest”.

These statistics suggest there was more than one unit in KwaZulu-Natal linked to a pattern of unlawful killings. If the Cato Manor unit was linked to unjustified killings, it was not the only one.

Killings by police in KwaZulu-Natal dropped dramatically in the year April 2011 to March 2012, the year in which the Sunday Times published its exposé of the Cato Manor unit. In the year to March 2013, the statistics for KwaZulu-Natal dropped once more, placing such killings in the province below those for Gauteng for only the second time since 1997.

Last year, the KwaZulu-Natal statistics jumped again, making it once more the leading province for killings by police. The 2013-2014 figure of 117 killings is the same as that recorded in 2007-2008, the year before the surge of killings in KwaZulu-Natal in which the Cato Manor unit is one of the units implicated.

This then suggests that one of the limitations of the police reform process in South Africa, notwithstanding considerable restructuring, has been in addressing the internal cultures of specific units. Though cultures of abuse may to some degree have become dormant, a context in which unlawful policing methods were being endorsed by political leaders lead to their resuscitation.

As illustrated by the acquittal of the police officers charged with killing protester Andries Tatane, a killing captured in full view of television cameras, convicting police for unlawful killings is not necessarily a simple matter. The current instability in the IPID, and in other components of the criminal justice system, could affect the chances that the case against the members of the Cato Manor unit will succeed, assuming there is some merit to it.

One consequence may be that the culture of institutionally sanctioned killings by some units of the KwaZulu-Natal police continues to endure.

David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in crime and policing

• See Dramat’s exit demands an investigation

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David Bruce
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security

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