Rubber bullets in Soweto: Another wretched, senseless death
Xolani Mtshikwana, 31, died on Sunday night in during a service delivery protest in Soweto as a result of rubber bullet wounds to the chest. Police claimed the death was an unrelated stabbing, but evidence points to something more sinister. His resembles the death of Andries Tatane at the hands of cops, only this time, there are no cameras. By GREG NICOLSON.
Journalists gathered outside the Elias Motsoaledi informal settlement in Soweto on Monday next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet destroyed after protestors set fire to the franchise. Major-General Eric Nkuma gave the debrief. The KFC was set alight at 19:15. Protestors burned a number of cars. Nineteen people had been arrested. One death was recorded. It was an unrelated stabbing. The major general was confident.
Xolani Mtshikwana’s death, the only recorded that night in the informal settlement, was, however, related. His death certificate, which Daily Maverick has seen, says he died from “gunshot wounds of the chest” and “hypovolemic shock” – loss of blood.
Police were absent for hours while protestors burned and looted the KFC, said community leader Johannes Latedisa, but they returned to the north side of the settlement later that night. Elias Motsoaledi is split into two, separated by a creek and a field. After leaving KFC, the protestors went to the north side but then crossed to their standard meeting place in the south. Mtshikwana was one of the few left in the north.
A witness, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of police reprisals, said the incident happened around 22:30. On foot, Johannesburg Metro Cops officers rushed the north side, shooting rubber bullets at the few protestors remaining. “By the time it started, the police were chasing two boys until one was shot and fell,” said the witness, who started watching through his window when he heard the commotion. “The shots were too much. There were cartridges all over.” Mtshikwana lay on the ground. The police told him to wake up. They kicked him “many times.”
The witness said a police Nyala parked near the body while the JMPD officers who were shooting chased other residents. Paramedics arrived and declared Mtshikwana dead, covering him in a sheet. By this time SAPS officers had also arrived. “Why did they shoot him in the head? We told you not to shoot the head,” the paramedics told police, said the witness. The officers’ response was inaudible.
Photo: Xolani Mtshikwana died on this spot in Elias Motsoaledi, Soweto, after being shot and kicked by JMPD officers, say residents. (Greg Nicolson)
Two sources that saw Mtshikwana’s body in the Diepkloof mortuary saw a rubber bullet wound on his jaw and another under his armpit, against the ribs. The chest blow was fatal, said the death certificate. The sources said his face was swollen and had injuries from assault.
According to Latedisa, the 19 arrested weren’t involved in the protest but were either around when the shooting occurred or they attempted to see the body. In the three to four hours it took for the mortuary van to arrive, police arrested anyone passing the area, those from shebeens, coming home from work, or simply trying to use their outdoor toilets, they said. One resident who also didn’t want to be named said that his son was arrested after he was told it was his brother who was killed and went to look. “You mustn’t come here,” police told another resident.
Mtshikwana’s sister Yoleka, 33, grew up with her brother in Lady Frere, Eastern Cape, and now lives in Elias Motsoaledi. She only learned on Wednesday that it was her brother who died, metres from her home. Xolani was quiet, worked piecemeal jobs “and liked soccer a lot,” she said, weeping outside her one-room shack.
On Monday she went to work, night shift. The next day she visited her brother’s home. He wasn’t there and she became suspicious because she knows his habits. It’s unusual for him to leave the washing on the line, she thought. Then again, it’s winter so clothes take longer to dry. But the clothes were still there when she went back the next day.
Yoleka contacted Latedisa, who said Xolani could have been arrested. The community went to court in support of those they say were wrongly charged with public violence on Wednesday. Mtshikwana’s name wasn’t on the list of accused. The next step was the mortuary.
Yoleka cried and saw there were no stab wounds. Her brother’s face looked like he had fallen hard. He looked like he had been beaten. She saw the rubber bullet wounds and wants to open a charge against the police on Friday.
Speaking on Thursday evening, Major-General Eric Nkuma said he couldn’t comment on Mtshikwana’s death. “This is sensitive and I cannot comment on it now. We are just waiting for the forensic report,” he said. He confirmed the Metro Police and SAPS were on the ground in the settlement on Sunday night.
Asked about police response to service delivery protests, the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) Isaac Mangena said, “We condemn the violent way police quell protests.” He pointed to the SAHRC’s inquiry into the death of Andries Tatane who was killed by rubber bullets fired by cops during a Ficksburg protest. The report strongly recommended police officers receive better training to deal with public protests and riots after the Ficksburg case proved their inability to ensure a non-violent outcome. Another key recommendation, added Mangena, was that police should avoid using rubber bullets and only employ them as a last resort.
Elias Motsoaledi residents were protesting against the government’s failure to keep its election promises and deliver electricity, sanitation, housing and water facilities. Some of its residents have been living in the terrible conditions for almost 20 years, and the anger boiled over last week as protests stretched from Tuesday to Sunday.
Xolani Mtshikwana, who a number of residents said was quiet and not generally one for protests, but briefly joined in on Sunday, was killed not simply from rubber bullet wounds and beatings from the police, but also by poverty and the lack of delivery that forces communities to take to the streets.
His body has been taken back to the Eastern Cape for burial. DM
- In photos: The Elias Motsoaledi protests – Soweto in Daily Maverick
Main photo: Xolani Mtshikwana's sister Yoleka wept as she recalled seeing her brother's dead body in the Diepkloof mortuary. She plans to open a case against the police on Friday. (Greg Nicolson)