/ 2 April 2020

‘Frustrated’ police resort to force

Safrica Health Virus
Enforcing the lockdown: Soldiers and police in the Cape Flats. There are concerns that some members of the security forces are abusing their authority (Pieter Bauermeister/AFP)

Ebrahim Hartley had a choice to make.

His family at home could be without power, or he could walk to the nearest spaza to buy prepaid electricity.

He knew that South African Police Service (SAPS) members and South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers were patrolling his neighbourhood in Beacon Valley, Mitchells Plain, to enforce the 21-day national lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.

But he had heard government ministers say at daily televised press conferences that necessities such as food, medicine and electricity would still be obtainable.

“I stepped outside my house, and I saw the police vans driving in another street. I turned around because I didn’t want trouble. They followed me, and they pulled up right in front of my house. I was pulled into the van.

“I tried to explain that I wanted to buy electricity. The police just shouted, ‘Be quiet, no one must be on the road’,” Hartley told the Mail & Guardian.

Trust broken: Ebrahim Hartley spent 12 hours in a police cell and was fined R5000 for contravening the Disaster Management Act after he was arrested while trying to buy prepaid electricity. (David Harrison)

Hartley’s wife, Rushaan, said after her husband was arrested she waved down a metro police vehicle. She said an officer told her that because her husband had his prepaid electricity slip and money in his possession he would be released.

Twelve hours later, Ebrahim Hartley walked out of Mitchells Plain police station with a R5000 fine for contravening the Disaster Management Act, and an order to appear in court in June.

He said that before this incident, he had trust and admiration for police. Now, he’s not sure.

Hartley, a chronic diabetic was kept in a police van for almost six hours and a police cell for as long. He is currently undergoing telephonic trauma counselling.

Hartley is one of the hundreds of people arrested for breaking lockdown regulations that are meant to curtail people’s movement to the bare minimum.

Only workers deemed essential to the economy may leave their homes to go to work; other people may visit only food stores and pharmacies — and seek medical attention, if it is absolutely necessary.

The sale of alcohol and cigarettes has also been banned.

Although some of these arrests have justifiably penalised people for breaking the regulations, cases such as Hartley’s is one of many in which innocent people have allegedly been victimised by the security officials

As well as such arrests, there are scores of complaints about police and soldiers’ assaults, abuses — and even allegations of murder.

The police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, said earlier this week it was investigating three cases of death as a result of police action, one in Gauteng and two in the Western Cape.

In one case, 55-year-old Petrus Miggels died when he suffered a heart attack after allegedly being beaten and tasered by police in Cape Town. At the time he was out buying beer at a local shebeen.

Several cases of assault are being investigated. In the Western Cape, a police officer has also been charged with rape.

Videos circulating on social media show police and soldiers instructing people to adopt stress or exercise positions if they’re found outside.

‘Only following the law’

Several police officials who spoke to the M&G on the condition of anonymity said officers are frustrated at ever-changing policy guidelines.

“There’s confusion. They want us to keep the people off the street, by issuing fines. But then later, we are told to release them on a warning. And people then just go back out on the streets again. Police are frustrated, and then they become hard-handed,” said one public-order police officer.

“Every day, there are new regulations — or they change. Like this week, taxis can drive people all times of the day. Last week it wasn’t the case. We don’t know what we’ll be told next week,” the officer said.

This week, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula relaxed transport regulations to allow social-grant recipients to collect their payments at social-security distribution centres.

Another official said there were mixed messages from government ministers as to what is and what is not allowed.

“Police are going to do one of two things. They are either going to do nothing because they are confused. Or they are going to moer people. If I had my way, I say moer them. Police should be heavy with them.

“We must enforce the law in black and white. The people don’t listen, they don’t believe this virus will affect them and they’re walking all over the place,” the SAPS officer said.

During a televised address to the nation on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa reminded the police that their duty was to keep South Africans safe during the Covid-19 crisis.

“We thank the 18000 security personnel, drawn from the police, defence force, metro police and other entities, [who] are responsible for ensuring our safety.

“We have made it clear that the task of our security personnel is to support, reassure and comfort our people, and to ensure peace and order is maintained. They know that they must act within the law at all times and that they must not cause harm to any of our people,” Ramaphosa said.

Human rights watchdog, the South African Human Rights Commission, said it is monitoring all allegations of rights abuses during the lockdown.

“The commission is aware of and is disturbed by footage circulating via social media depicting members of the SANDF and SAPS officials using force against people who fail to comply with lockdown regulations. The commission finds these incidents unpleasant and deeply concerning,” it said in a statement.

Call for oversight

The Democratic Alliance has called for a parliamentary ad hoc committee to be established to oversee and monitor alleged abuses and the flouting of civil liberties by the security cluster during the lockdown.

Two weeks ago, Parliament’s work was suspended as strict restrictions determining the number of people who may congregate came into effect.

DA Leader John Steenhuisen said he has asked National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise to convene an emergency ad hoc committee to look into how the state of disaster regulations are being implemented.

“The rules of Parliament say the speaker can call an ad hoc committee to meet during the recess period. It’s important that there is a way for us to guard civil liberties and ensure oversight of the executive because what you don’t want to do is to let the temporary become permanent. Civilian oversight at this time is critical,” Steenhuisen said.

DA MP Kobus Marais, a member of  the defence portfolio committee, has called for the military ombudsman to conduct an independent inquiry into alleged abuses by soldiers deployed to ensure adherence to the lockdown measures.

“There are many people and civilians who are not adhering to the calls to stay at home. I do have empathy for the soldiers. But remember, the defence force has not been trained for this,” he said.

Marais said the military and police doctrine is “completely different” for each branch — “Minimum force to them [soldiers] means something different to the SAPS.”

He added that: “They’re doing their job, but they must not forget that we are in a constitutional democracy. We’re only in a state of disaster —imagine what would happen in a state of emergency?”