South Africa

South Africa

Vaalwater: In a sea of police abuse, brutality plunges to new depths

In 2011 Norman “Herman” Mokau had the courage to report being savagely beaten by notorious Vaalwater policemen Petrus Lefoka, a cop known to klap first and ask questions later. The relentless beating was filmed by a friend. Lefoka was handed a suspended sentence of two months imprisonment, with the option of a R2,000 fine, suspended for five years, and internal police disciplinary procedures fined him R500. Mokau, meanwhile, is still not fully recovered: the boy who never failed a year at school is now repeating grade 10 for the third time. Nothing in Leseding passes unnoticed, but little is done, as the fear of retribution at the hands of the police is all too real. The community has seen how justice is served in the case of Mokau; is it any wonder that it feels disempowered? By GREG MARINOVICH & THAPELO LEKGOWA.

When 18-year-old Norman “Herman” Mokau and his friends walked from Meetsetshehla Secondary School in the western Limpopo town of Vaalwater on 24 November 2011 and changed from their uniforms into street clothes, they were happy, upbeat and planning to get drunk.

They had finished writing their last grade 10 exam for the year and they went to the Rhino tavern to have a “pens down” party. As the afternoon progressed, Norman got pretty drunk. A disagreement between him and his friend David Moatshe over who should pay R2 for the next game of snooker led to Mokau falling and putting his hand through a pane of glass in the Rhino tavern’s door.

Working at the bar was a woman called Maria, who became worried that a fight was breaking out and called the police. It is unclear if she dialled the station or called officer Petrus Dihlora Lefoka on his cellphone, but as the police station is less than a kilometre up the road from the Rhino tavern, Warrant Officer Lefoka arrived swiftly.

The fight that Maria feared the drunken schoolboys would have never materialised, and by the time Lefoka got out of the van, the drama was over. Mokau’s hand, cut when he broke the pane, was being bandaged, and he had assured the bar that he would pay for the broken glass.

The bulky policeman grabbed the schoolboy from behind, his forearm across his throat. The patrons who had gathered started to laugh; they recognised they were in for some entertainment. Community members knew Lefoka as a cop who klapped first and asked questions later. One of Mokau’s friends, Sello Mokoena, was also amused. He had experienced the Vaalwater method of policing unruly youth before, and knew it was good for a laugh, as long as he were not the recipient of that unofficial policing style.

The tall teenager resisted and broke free, and the crowd began to taunt the policeman, “Ag, you can’t manage a little boy!” This seemed to enrage Lefoka, and he slapped the drunk teenager hard, dropping the boy to the ground. The crowd was not disappointed, but as Norman fell, Lefoka began to kick him, and some, including Sello, felt a chill of misapprehension. He began using his cellphone to film what was degenerating from casual abuse into assault.

Watch: A brutal attack on Norman Mokau.

Some in the crowd are quietly asking “What has he done, what has he done?” while another says “Beat him, but don’t kill him.” As the casual yet brutal attack continued, even Norman’s friend, David, felt moved to try to obliquely intervene. The slight teenager with a sporty cap sidled into frame, and picked up his friend’s flip-flop sandals and hat, as he tried to keep close. He smiled fearfully as he tried to use his proximity to distract the policeman from the drawn out assault. Of the crowd, he was the only one to venture close enough to get involved, the rest remained spectators.

By then, Norman was slipping in and out of consciousness as the policeman kicked his head. His lithe frame, toned from regular soccer and rugby at school, was floppy and unresisting. Lefoka grabbed a handful of Norman’s shirt and dragged him to the back of the police van. He tried to push him in, but Norman regained enough awareness to hold onto the frame, and thwart Lefoka. The policeman dropped him, looked down, and stamped on his head, three times. The almost ghostlike figure of David slipped in and out of frame as he wanted to help the policeman heft the boy feet first into the back of the van. Norman is lifted by his trouser waistband and his head drags on the ground to the audible horror of an unseen woman in the crowd. Stubbornly his head did not go in.

It is not that clear in the video, but Sello and two other witnesses say that they understood that the irritated policeman wanted to kick Norman’s head into the van. That was when David could not bear to watch any longer, and slipped past the policeman to try to get his friend safely into the van. Lefoko slapped the boy, who retreated. Eventually, Norman was in, and the policeman makes to close the door, yet Norman’s head and fingers seem to be in the path of the closing door. The policeman then pushes the schoolboy’s head sideways and clears his fingers from the metal door frame.

The video ended shortly after the back door was shut, but Norman’s torment did not. After Lefoka drove the short distance to the police station, with Norman’s unprotected head lying on the floor of the bakkie, he apparently left him unconscious in the van for two hours. Eventually, an ambulance from the neighbouring municipal compound was called, and Norman was taken to Modimolle, the town about three quarters of an hour to the east.

When Norman came to, he found himself lying in a bed, with people in uniforms standing over him. He was confused; fearing that the people around him were police, he got up and ran, escaping into the night. He had no idea where he was, or what was happening. He had no idea he was in Modimolle, or “Nyl” as he and his mates call the former Nylstroom, and just began running, trying to escape whom he believed to be his assailants.

It so happened that another resident of Vaalwater’s Leseding township, Nico, was in Nyl for a Friday night out, and at around 11pm was on his way to the hitchhiking spot on the edge of town. Nico was surprised to see a bloodied and weakened Norman wandering the town. He called to him and, assuming he had been mugged and beaten, guided Norman to the hiking spot on the edge of Nyl. Nico paid for both their fares, and saw the boy home.

The next day, Norman, his brother and his friend David went to the police station to lay a charge against Lefoka.

It is not clear what happened in the weeks following the charge being laid, but it was only after the video appeared on the Internet in January of 2012 that things began to move, at least publicly.

Back in February of 2012, the police spokesman for Limpopo, Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, told The Sowetan that, “We are definitely going to charge our member with attempted murder and not assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm or just common assault.

“The top management of police in this province view the allegations against the member stationed at Vaalwater in a very serious light. We therefore assert that a criminal case against the officer in question has been registered and the investigation process is at an advanced stage. So are the internal processes which either vindicate the member or expose his abuse of power. If the latter is the case, the concerned officer faces suspension and/or dismissal.”

Yet now, the same SAPS spokesman now informs us that Lefoka faced only a charge of grievous bodily harm (GBH). Mulaudzi says that this was a decision taken by the body that investigates police misconduct, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).

The IPID, on the other hand, through its spokesman Moses Dlamini, says that it was a police investigation, and that the assault charge had already been laid by the time it got involved. And even then, it was only when the prosecution asked it to investigate an aspect of the incident.

The upshot is that both the police and the body meant to watch the police seem to be passing the buck for the investigation of Lefoka to each other. The reason for this might be the nature of the sentence handed down to the policeman.

After finding the warrant officer guilty of assault with the intention to do grievous bodily harm, the court gave him a suspended sentence of two months imprisonment, with the option of a R2,000 fine, suspended for five years. (The police say suspended for four years). Internal police disciplinary procedures fined him R500.

Fifteen months later, Lefoka is still a warrant officer and he is back at work after a brief suspension. He does not appear to have spent a day in jail, and residents say that in fact he was appointed acting station commander for a while after the incident.

A police colleague says that the case affected him deeply, that “That man has been through a lot. That thing has pained him,” and that “he went through disciplinary, and was suspended”. Daily Maverick attempted to approach Lefoka for his version of events, but the station commander, Captain KW Mpete, said that this was not what Lefoka would want. “I cannot tell him you are here,” Mpete said, and referred us to the SAPS communications officer.

Norman is now repeating grade 10 for the third time, even though he had always passed his previous grades at the first attempt, albeit by a slim margin. He says he has trouble concentrating on his studies. Teachers at his school say he has always been a quiet boy who is no trouble at all. In the wake of the attack on him, Norman says he twice lost consciousness for about half an hour and that he often gets headaches and back pain. The local clinic gives him pain killers and sends him on his way.

Norman is unnervingly unclear about the outcome of his case against the policeman. There was a series of postponements and then it seemed to end rather abruptly. He says that he sometimes got calls from a Pretoria lawyer who represented him, and sometimes from an IPID official. He cannot recall their names.

Vaalwater is a farming centre on a fertile valley floor along the western route of the R33 from Modimolle in the unprepossessing Waterberg mountains. Numerous signboards for game lodges and the tall game fences along the road hint at more interesting scenery. The dense bushveld is dominated by the silvery green leaves of a dominant local tree. Vaalwater is small, really more of a village than a town, and the equally small township of Leseding nestles right up against it, just out of sight from the main road.

Leseding has a few paved roads, and the RDP houses that dominate seem to be of reasonable quality and on fair sized stands. There is a clinic and a small community hall. A largish patch of land seems to house a variety of formal and informal church buildings, ranging from a proper brick evangelical church to the pole and zinc amaZioni churches.

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Photo: Dozens of residents wait to collect water in the evening, Limpopo, South Africa. Leseding, Vaalwater, March 11, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)

There does not appear to be much for teenagers to do in Leseding. After school, what passes for its main road is peppered with young people walking, chatting or just hanging out on street corners. This was where the young man who took the Vaalwater video, Sello Mokoena, and a friend are eating their lunch, takeaway ikota, while sitting on a kerbstone.

Groups of other young men pass by, greeting him. Some stop to chat. While many of the girls are still in their school uniforms, the boys seem to have changed into street wear, except for Norman. His white school shirt is clean, and well-pressed, except for where creases have developed during the course of the day. His worn trousers neatly repaired where holes have appeared, the pocket edges fraying.

Both school goers and those who have finished their education do not see much of a future for themselves. The only jobs are hard labour on the farms, or menial work at the lodges that dot the Waterberg. There is always the hope of work at the municipality, but for that “you have to have serious connections, not just casual ones.”

Sello is one of the few who has taken a more practical approach, and has completed a basic motor mechanic course. He does a part time, informal, apprenticeship with a local backyard truck mechanic. The options for survival in Leseding are “tuckshop, tavern or transport”.

A group gathers around Sello as he recounts how his video of Norman’s beating spread. He first showed the cellphone footage at 20:00 that night to a friend, who copied it onto his own cellphone via Bluetooth. The video spread across the township. “By midnight, everyone had heard that Lefoka had hurt a schoolchild,” Sello recalls. The next day, when Norman laid charges against the policeman, the video had been seen by most of the black population of Vaalwater.

The video only came to the attention of the wider world in January of 2012, when a friend, who lived in Vaalwater itself and had Internet access, suggested they post it online.

Within days, Sello heard that Lefoka was searching for the person who filmed the video, but did not yet know it was Sello. He was scared: “As we grew up, we feared him, as he was the only cop beating us children. He was the only cop who was so scary. He ran the town, he was a mean man.”

Sello decided to leave town when he got a call from an unidentified male speaking Sepedi who told him: “I don’t know who you are, but believe me, we will meet and you will regret taking the video. I will beat you.” He stayed away from Limpopo province for three months before he felt it safe enough to return.

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Photo: Township boys check out the Vaalwater video. Norman Mokau was 18 when he was savagely beaten by local policeman Petrus Lefoka. Lefoka escaped with a suspended sentence. Leseding, Vaalwater, Limpopo, South Africa. March 11, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)

The boys of Leseding fear the police in general. They, and adults, speak of a general climate of fear. They tell tales of how young men and teenage boys bear the brunt of a vigilante-style of policing.

Several told us of how young men who have been out at night are made to run in front of police vans “like you herd cattle” until they got to their homes. Others tell of how police beat them, mostly for being on the streets at night. Mechanic and transporter Morotsi Mokguathi, 52, is regularly woken in the early hours by the squeal of tyres followed by the screams of boys. When he gets up, he sees it is the police administering their own brand of rough law and order.

Older residents say that the problems with drinking and the concomitant police reaction has become an issue post-1998, when formal taverns were established. Prior to that, the local shebeens did not attract the youth much. “Few people have DStv at home, so to watch soccer matches, the boys go to the taverns who have big screens. And they get drunk,” explains Mokguathi, pausing from his labours on a diesel bakkie engine in his Leseding yard. He is sympathetic to the frustrations of the youth, saying that they have few options, as there is no stadium and no park.

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Photo: Children play outside a tavern, collecting then breaking bottles, and using alcohol advertising posters for a game. Leseding, Vaalwater, Limpopo, South Africa. March 11, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)

The youth usually head home by one or two in the morning, and they find police waiting for them. It seems, anecdotally, that it is Lefoka – a member of the tee-totalling Zion Christian Church – who cannot abide drunkards. Of course, there are laws against public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, or whatever mischief the drinkers may get up to, but residents say that informal policing methods are often preferred.

One might have thought that the older generation would find comfort in the fact that the police are disciplining the tough-to-handle teenagers, but most are against it. When Mokguathi saw the video of Norman being beaten by Lefoka, he was shocked, “He kicked him like a ball. He is still a child – we see him as a child.” The mechanic asserts that if the boy had done wrong, the policeman should, in Pedi culture, have approached the parents, as the youth was still living under his parents’ care, and a schoolboy.

Like the youth, Mokguathi knows the policeman “as a violent man who hits first and asks questions later.” Not that Lefoka is alone; it is common for police to beat both complainant and defendant in trivial disputes. Cases are often not opened, and the adversaries told to “sort it out”. He has walked past the police station and seen police hosing down naked people locked in the back of a “mellow yellow” or Canter police truck. “They do not even hide it, they do it in broad daylight, and leave them in the truck all night, releasing them the next morning.”

Mokguathi claims that if you raise your voice about these abuses, you are targeted. This could explain why 17- year-old Poster Shongoape did not lay a charge after his experiences in a room at the police station dubbed the “di trankeng”, in January of this year.

Poster and his friend, one of a pair of identical twins from the Nkomane family, had both been drinking, and they were walking home when they inadvertently crossed the street in front of an oncoming police van. His friend was pretty drunk and holding an empty beer bottle, so when the police van screeched to a halt and the cops got out, they reckoned they were in for a beating so they both made a run for it.

They got away, but unfortunately for them, Leseding is a small place, and everyone knows everyone. Poster went to a well-known tavern called Meriting ya Meloding, thinking he had escaped, as did his friend who first went home, and then made his way towards the tavern. In the interim, the police picked up Poster at the tavern, and then drove to the twins’ house, where they found the twin, Peter Nkomane, who had not been involved. The police refused to believe the innocent twin, nor did they believe Poster that they had the wrong twin.

The boys were taken to the police station, and into the “di trankeng” which is actually the strongroom where the police guns are kept in locked trunks and has a large, reinforced door and thick, windowless walls. Once closed, only muffled sounds escape the strongroom. Here, Poster says, they were manacled, hands to feet, with handcuffs or as it is referred to, “hak-‘n-boy”.

The policemen began beating Peter with their hands and feet, despite his protestation of innocence, and Poster’s repeated interjections that this was the wrong twin. After some time, the police took the boys back to the township, and once they caught the “guilty” twin, released the “innocent”, beaten twin, Peter. They brought Poster and the other twin back to the police station at Vaalwater, where they were again manacled in the gunroom, but not beaten. Apparently the police laid a charge against the “guilty” twin and took him to prison. He was released when he paid a R2,000 admission of guilt fine, says Poster.

The gunroom is notorious among residents. “Once a person goes into that room, then it really goes down,” said one young man.

It took the savage beating of a character as resolute, as stubborn, or even as “troublesome” as Norman before someone finally laid a charge against the police in Vaalwater.

Yet in a community such a Leseding, everyone has a connection to everyone else, and Lefoka’s sister was a reasonably close friend of Norman’s mother. In fact, the families are distantly related through marriage. The kind of relationship that does not mean much in Leseding, but should they meet in a distant city, would be reason enough for excitement.

Lefoka’s sister came to visit Norman’s mother, Sophie Mokau, and suggested that the family accept the R15,000 that Lefoka was said to be offering for Norman to withdraw the charges. When Sophie refused, the sister angrily told her that she was foolish, as her brother had money and it was easy to make the case disappear. It was also implied that money might be used to make something “bad” happen to Norman.

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Photo: Sophie Mokau, the mother of Norman Mokau who was 18 when he was svagely beaten by local policeman Petrus Lefoka. Lefoka escaped with a suspended sentence. Leseding, Vaalwater, Limpopo, South Africa. March 11, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)

Others in the area believe that this had, in fact, already happened. When the Daily Maverick first asked two young women walking along the R33 road through Vaalwater how to get to the township, and if they knew Norman, they said he could be found wandering around the township, not right in the head. He had been bewitched, they said.

The intimacy of the tiny community, the chance that the parents of someone you klapped will see you once or twice a week as you pass, does not seem to faze the policemen. Rather, it seems to be a source of their power, as the community has never once held a meeting to discuss police brutality, or inappropriate behaviour. Nothing in Leseding passes unnoticed, but little is done, as the fear of retribution at the hands of the police is all too real.

The courage of Norman in laying charges against Petrus Lefoka appears to have been for nought. It has not advanced his rights, or the rights of the community one iota. The failure to achieve anything other than a thin veneer of justice has made the residents even more convinced of their impotence at the hands of the police.

Yet perhaps the case of the drunken schoolboy may have been the seed that takes root. As Norman says: “What he did to me was not right. He should be in jail; he should not be a policeman any longer.” DM

Main photo: Norman Mokau, left, was 18 when he was savagely beaten by local policeman Petrus Lefoka. Lefoka escaped with a suspended sentence. Poster Shongoape, 17, right, watched a friend beaten inside the police station. Leseding, Vaalwater, Limpopo, South Africa. March 11, 2013. (Greg Marinovich)