South Africa

Torture, SA’s never-ending curse

By K Patel & M De Waal 17 October 2012

As industrial action continues to spread across the country and various industries, attitudes to the South African Police Service reveal the extent to which trust in the country’s security has been eroded. Among other things, it is the use of torture by police that has opened up a massive chasm between workers and law enforcement. By KHADIJA PATEL and MANDY DE WAAL.

Last weekend, the platinum belt buzzed with rumours that a man had been killed in police custody. Activists claimed he had been tortured to death. But days after the rumour had first spread, there was little evidence to support the activists’ claim. Representatives of the South African Police Service and the police watchdog the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) said they were unaware of such a death in the last week. And though the police have been open to queries about the alleged death and the IPID have expressed their readiness to open an investigation, should a complaint be lodged, there has been little evidence to back up the claim. 

The persistence of the rumour, however – despite the lack of evidence – indicates once more the extent to which trust in the police has been eroded since the Marikana massacre in August. While public attention was galvanised by the televised shootings on August 16th, it is police behaviour away from the killing fields that has further sealed mistrust and suspicion between communities and law enforcement.   

After striking workers from Marikana were released from police custody, many alleged assault to extract ‘confessions’ by SAPS members at Phokeng and Mogwase police stations. The IPID investigators then visited Jericho Police station two days later and established that the detainees linked to the Marikana case were also assaulted at this police station. A case of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm was registered and the IPID obtained 40 statements from the miners.

Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa has already received a preliminary report from the IPID on the allegations of torture related to Marikana. Spokesperson Zweli Mnisi told Daily Maverick that the contents of the report would not be revealed publicly, as the report was to form part of the police testimony to the Farlam Commission later this month. 

Mthethwa himself has condemned the use of torture and promised to bring recalcitrant officers to book. “Any police officer who conducts him- or herself in a manner that is not in line with Constitutional principles should face the full might of the law, and I encourage IPID to investigate these allegations, without fear or favour,” he said in the statement.

In May last year, the IPID Act became law, expanding the mandate of the regulatory body to include incidents of torture and rape by police. Critically as well, police failure to report suspected incidents or obstruction of IPID investigations were made criminal offences. While the IPID operates independently from police under the Act, it has powers to undertake an investigation into police abuses and violations of human rights  – including any allegations of torture or assault against a police officer.

Reports of torture in the industrial unrest that has gripped the country in recent months have, however, outstripped the action on the platinum belt. 

On Wednesday, Cosatu raised allegations of shootings, assault and arbitrary arrest of striking miners at the Sishen Iron Ore mine near Kathu in the Northern Cape.

“It is sad to learn that the workers have been assaulted, shot at and arrested while they were on a peaceful strike action,” Anele Gxoyiya, COSATU Northern Cape Provincial Secretary said, adding, “If the company could put the police and private security on the workers inside the workplace, that therefore means that workers at Sishen Iron Ore mine are not safe in the workplace.”

Moreover, Cosatu feels that the presence of police on the mine, without due respect to safety regulations, infringes on workers’ safety on the mine.
“We are also concerned that the management of the company violated their own safety regulations by allowing police who have not been orientated about the safety rules to drive cars that are not designed to drive in the mine premises,” Gxoyiya said.

As labour unrest spreads further across various industries, workers’ grievances against their employers and unions are also marked by allegations of the SAPS acting in collusion with business and unions leaders to protect the status quo. 

Allegations of torture in police custody have been a recurrent theme of complaints against the South African Police Services. Amnesty International notes that from April 2008 to March 2009, for example, the Independent Police Directorate at the time investigated 828 incidents of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, some of which amounted to torture. Suspects in several cases were said to have been interrogated and assaulted while held – without any record of their arrest. 

While human rights agencies complain that government has failed to take active steps to eradicate torture since the fall of Apartheid, it is widely accepted that many of the practices of the Apartheid state remain ingrained in the security and law enforcement agencies. Suspects and prisoners are often not afforded their rights, which contributes to conditions in which torture can occur. 

According to legal experts, the many efforts to hold officials accused of gross rights violations accountable have seldom succeeded. These sources say investigations are undermined, witnesses intimidated, cases are withdrawn and trials, if they do proceed to this level, drag on forever. The result is a culture of impunity.

Though torture is widespread across Africa, only eight of the 54 countries on the continent have made it a criminal offence. The chairman of the African Union’s African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Catherine Dupe Atoki, said at a Johannesburg press conference in August that there was a lack of political will in Africa to tackle the problem.

Despite tacit admissions from government, torture continues to take place. It remains difficult to work out the exact prevalence of torture because it is not classified as a crime in itself. South Africa ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, promising to criminalise torture 14 years ago, but has so far failed to do so. The Prevention and Combating of Torture of Persons Bill currently before parliament, if passed, will make it a crime.

Commemorating International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26 this year, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), a member of The South African No Torture Consortium, stressed the need for the Bill to criminalise torture unequivocally. “The law needs to make clear that torture is a crime that is particularly appalling, one that the state and society at large will not tolerate under any circumstances,” the statement said.

Six years ago, Jody Kollapen, then the Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission warned against complacency, saying: “Twelve years into democracy, it can be easy to be seductively relaxed and forget to look at issues of torture; inhuman, degrading and cruel treatment or punishment.” The unrelenting wave of industrial action currently gripping the country, however, is a reminder that torture remains a reality. DM

Read more:

  • Marikana: Tide is turning against police as miners lay charge of torture on Daily Maverick  
  • Marikana: Freed miners speak of torture in police cells in Daily Maverick  
  • Marikana: Police torture takes centre stage in Daily Maverick  

Photo: A protester gestures as police officers stand guard to prevent marchers (not pictured) from proceeding on, in Rustenburg, South Africa’s North West Province September 16, 2012. Lonmin, due to resume talks on Monday with strikers at its Marikana platinum mine in South Africa who rejected a pay rise offer last week, insisted it could not meet the workers’ demands but promised a new approach in labour relations. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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