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20 October 2014 09:58 (South Africa)
South Africa

Khayelitsha policing inquiry: Civil society turns to DIY

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
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Hearings were supposed to begin Monday in the commission of inquiry set up to investigate policing in Khayelitsha. But the commission is suspended while Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa pursues legal channels to stop it. Instead, civil society organisations decided to take matters into their own hands, hosting a ‘People’s Commission of Inquiry’. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Last week Nathi Mthethwa filed papers in the Western Cape High Court applying for an interdict against the Khayelitsha policing commission announced by Premier Helen Zille in August. The inquiry, headed by former judge Kate O’Regan and advocate Vusi Pikoli, was set to begin public hearings this Monday. But both Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega are opposed to the commission, which they regard as politically-motivated and an “act of aggression” against the SAPS.

The High Court date to hear Mthethwa’s urgent interdict application was set for Monday. After lawyers acting for Mthethwa met their provincial government counterparts in Judge John Hlophe’s chambers Monday morning, however, a new court date to hear Mthethwa’s application was set for 13 December. Until the court hearing is held, the commission will not go ahead. 

Mthethwa needn’t sleep easy, however. An internal SAPS report was included in the interdict application that seems to utterly vindicate civil society organisations that have been calling for a Khayelitsha policing inquiry for some years. City Press reported Sunday that the report includes the damning statistic that 78 vigilante murders were committed in Khayelitsha in 14 months. This is a far higher figure than the 18 to 20 that was previously thought.       

Another bleak inclusion was the extremely high number of police officers who have been involved in disciplinary action in the Khayelitsha policing district since January 2011. In the course of a year, 701 disciplinary cases brought against the 656 police personnel working out of three Khayelitsha police stations. The Cape Argus reported Monday that some of the repeat offenders were “high-ranking officers”. Most of the disciplinary charges related to a failure to complete police procedure efficiently: not investigating crimes, not registering dockets, not sending charged suspects to court.

But there was also a reported increase in domestic violence complaints laid against Khayelitsha police officers – 16 between January and June this year alone. The task team found this might be “an indication that those entrusted with the policing of social crimes within the community are in fact perpetrators themselves”. 

As depressing as these facts are, they were grist to the mill of the five NGOs that have been pushing for an inquiry into precisely these kinds of problems. Frustrated by the ongoing delays, on Monday the Social Justice Coalition simply decided to go ahead by itself. When word came through that the High Court hearing would be delayed until next month, it established its own “People’s Commission of Inquiry” outside the court.

A table was set up with two “commissioners” standing in for O’Regan and Pikoli, who were represented via pictures stuck to the table. Plastic chairs were laid out, and members of the Khayelitsha community who had travelled to the court to plead for the commission to go ahead took their seats as audience members of the inquiry. 

“Today is a very sad day,” veteran activist Zackie Achmat told the crowd. “The commission has been silenced, and John Hlophe has not opened the court for us.” The postponement of the hearing meant another month in which people would die, be raped and be robbed in Khayelitsha, he said. But in the interim, the “people’s commission” would hear the accounts from Khayelitsha residents which the official inquiry should be assessing, with Achmat and SJC Deputy Chairwoman Vuyani Mngqete leading testimony.

First on the “witness stand” was Thandokazi Njamela. “I have been a victim of crime many times in Khayelitsha,” Njamela began simply. “I have reported crimes to the police but nothing ever gets done. The only thing they did was come to me and say that I must drop charges. I no longer have faith in the police. I no longer have faith in the justice system in Khayelitsha.”

Njamela cited two particularly harrowing incidents she experience personally. In 2009, she was almost killed when a friend’s boyfriend assaulted her with a beer bottle. Released on bail, the man went on to kill two people. Upon re-arrest, he was released again, whereupon he intimidated her until she was forced to move away. 

In 2010, Njamela and a friend went to a tavern to buy some beers. Gunmen entered the tavern and proceeded to shoot it up. Her friend was killed in the gunfire. Njamela herself survived the attack with six bullets in her body, two of which remain lodged within her. Police did not investigate her case. When Njamela tried to lay a charge, police advised against it, saying the perpetrators were dangerous and it would be deleterious to her own safety to pursue the matter any further.

The Treatment Action Campaign’s Mike Hamca said at least two rape cases reported per day in Khayelitsha, with many more presumed going unreported. There is, after all, little incentive to report crimes when it is doubtful that any justice will result. “Cases are being thrown out of court because police are not taking correct statements,” he said. When procedure is followed, the overstrained court system takes much longer than it should: Hamca cited the case of murdered lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyana, whose case was postponed almost 40 times over the course of six years.

Two witnesses also testified to the fact that the Community Policing Forum (CPF) is an unhelpful mechanism in Khayelitsha. The forum, according to the Western Cape government website, “consists of organisations and institutions such as schools, ratepayers’ associations, civic organisations, businesses and religious institutions, working in partnership with the local police. The purpose of a CPF is to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for citizens living in the CPF’s area.”

Nice idea, but according to Khayelitsha residents, it simply isn’t working. The “People’s Commission” was told that the CPF does not communicate with the local community. Often, it was claimed, members are motivated only by a desire to secure jobs for themselves within the police force. When crime actually occurs, it was alleged, CPF members stand back and make residents enter dangerous situations in their place.

Another issue raised was that of cronyism. To receive help from police in Khayelitsha, the inquiry heard, you need to speak directly to the local police commissioner. Only then do you stand a chance of receiving assistance. Other witnesses complained about general police unhelpfulness: one cited a case where they had called police to a crime scene (via intervention from the all-important commissioner) only to be rebuked for doing so and to go to the police station rather than calling police out.

A young woman testified that her phone had been stolen by a group of criminals last year in Khayelitsha. When she went to the police station to open a case, she was told that if she wanted the case opened, the criminals would not be pursued and her phone would not be retrieved. If she left the case un-opened, the desired outcome would result.

The Social Justice Coalition’s Gavin Silber pointed out how safe the Cape Town city centre has become in recent years compared to the city’s informal settlements, with violent crime within the CBD almost entirely eradicated. “That has happened because government and others prioritised addressing crime in the city centre,” he said. They installed 100 security cameras. They employed 250 security guards to patrol the streets at night. There are social development teams who go round to ensure people on the street get support and streets are clean. More than R30-million a year is spent on that. We know that nothing like that exists in Khayelitsha and what we need to talk about it is how we can demand the same level of service there.”

Silber was emphatic that the Khayelitsha problem does not stop at policing. Other social issues in the township play a part towards fostering conditions that thwart the provision of justice. Adequate sanitation, he said, means as many as 250,000 people have no choice but to walk along the side of the road to find a space to use the toilet – during which trip they are often attacked at night. Police often don’t have access to crime scenes and fire engines and ambulances can’t get through because there is no coherent road system in Khayelitsha. There is also a dearth of lighting in many areas, which also contributes to a less-safe environment. 

To merely tackle policing, Silber warned, would be insufficient to bring social justice to Khayelitsha. Zackie Achmat also stressed that the police should not be seen as the enemy. “We do not believe that all police are corrupt, or lazy, or carry out criminal activities,” he said. “We are going to make sure the commission knows we want to help. We do not want to fight.”

Those words are unlikely to deter Mthethwa from his legal path, even though his attempts to stop the official inquiry going ahead seem increasingly indefensible. If his concerns lay with the public image of the Khayelitsha cops, the weekend’s media spreads about the damaging taskforce report have already taken care of that. Of course, post-Marikana, he may feel that the SAPS can’t afford a whole lot more reputational damage in one year. But the active obstructionism of the path Mthethwa has chosen in the Khayelitsha saga looks highly suspicious, and won’t win SAPS any new friends anyway.   

Closing the People’s Commission, the SJC’s Mngqete had some harsh words for Mthethwa and Phiyega, accusing the application for a court interdict of being a time-wasting and money-squandering manoeuvre. “Crime should not be politicised,” he said. “They are playing with our lives.” DM

Read more:

  • “Police report shows something rotten in Khayelitsha,” on M&G

Photo: Khayelitsha residents protest against Nathi Mthethwa's interdict application outside the Western Cape High Court on Monday

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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