South Africa

Police Priorities: A murdered cop and a middle finger to the President

By Khadija Patel 19 June 2013

The revelation on Tuesday of the murder of a senior police officer in Gauteng in murky circumstances has prompted much speculation but it has also forced scrutiny once more of the perils of police work in South Africa. Also on Tuesday, a court ruled against the Minister of Police who has resisted apologising to a young man arrested for showing the president the middle finger. It really can’t be easy being Police Minister in South Africa. By KHADIJA PATEL.

There remains very little detail about the circumstances that led to the death of Major-General Tirhani Simon Maswanganyi. The South African Police Service (SAPS) said Maswanganyi’s body was found early Tuesday morning in an open field beside a highway in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.

According to the SAPS, patrolling officers were prompted to launch an investigation upon the discovery of an abandoned Isuzu bakkie beside the R101 freeway. In the bakkie, the patrolling officers found a discarded police uniform, a service rifle as well as a police identification card. Several police units including the Dog Unit were called in to help with the search. Maswanganyi’s body was subsequently found in a bushy area nearby, his hands and feet were bound and there were no visible injuries, or apparent gunshot wounds.

The motive of the crime is still unknown.

But as the horror of that murder continues to unfold, another case involving the police on Tuesday revealed the complexity of police work in South Africa in the current day.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) revealed that the South Gauteng High Court dismissed, with a punitive costs order, an application calling for a review of the Commission’s findings against the SAPS. The case in question involved one Chumani Maxwele, the University of Cape Town student who showed President Zuma’s motorcade the middle finger in February 2010.

The Commission received a complaint from the FW de Klerk Foundation’s Centre for Constitutional Rights, also in February 2010, on behalf of Maxwele.

The Commission found that members of the Presidential Special Protection Unit violated Maxwele’s rights: “After conducting an investigation into this matter the Commission found that indeed the following rights were violated namely: Human Dignity (Section 10); Freedom and Security of the Person (Section 12); Privacy (Section 14); Freedom of Expression and peaceful/unarmed demonstration (Sections 16 & 17); Political Choice (Section 19) and the Rights of Detained Persons (Section 35).”

Maxwele complained that during his arrest that followed the middle finger to the presidential blue lights, his head was covered with a paper bag and his legs bound while he was whisked to a police station. He was released a day later without charge, but also had been without any food during his detention. He claims he returned to his home to find that his belongings had also not escaped the attention of the country’s security services.

The SAHRC found that “the Minister of Police should be held vicariously liable for the acts of members and employees of the South African Police Service who are found to have been acting within the course and scope of employment.” The Commission recommended that the minister issue an apology to Maxwele within a stipulated time frame and reaffirm his and his charges’ commitment to the Bill of Rights.

Sorry, however, appears to be a very, very hard word for the good minister.

In January 2012, nearly two years after the incident, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa approached the courts to persuade the SAHRC to set aside its ruling against him and the SAPS in the Maxwele case.

The minister explained that an apology from him would not sit very well in the civil suit that Maxwele had brought against the SAPS.

In 2012, Mthethwa’s spokesman Zweli Mnisi said, “On numerous occasions, the minister has appealed to the SAHRC not to prejudge the outcome of this case and to allow the legal process, which Maxwele opted to use, to take its course.

Any apology by the minister would be tantamount to pre-judging the case,” he said.

The R1.4-million lawsuit against Mthethwa for wrongful arrest was meant to be heard in court earlier this month, but on the eve of the case Maxwele was made a ­settlement offer of R80,000. He rejected the settlement and his lawyer also quit the case.

With Maxwele in legal limbo in the civil action he’s pursued, the South Gauteng High Court has now ruled very strongly in favour of the SAHRC.

According to the SAHRC, Judge Neels Claasen found that the “minister had displayed a disconcerting attitude which, if not downright contemptuous of the Commission, at the very least showed disrespect for the Commission’s standing as a body instituted by the Constitution and tasked with a duty to investigate events where human rights are violated”.

The judge also ordered the Minister to foot the bill for the SAHRC’s legal costs.

Meanwhile, the death of the slain police officer Maswanganyi has been described as a loss to the fight against crime. Speaking to Eye Witness News, the Institute for Security Studies’ Gareth Newham said the murder is a shocking reminder of the danger police officers face on a daily basis.

In a 2011 report on police killings for the ISS however, Newham noted “both the deaths of police officers on duty and police brutality are well known occupational hazards”.

And while Maxwele’s case, though disturbing, still falls short of the kind of brutality displayed by the police in Marikana for example, his experience does prove a tendency by the SAPS to react with inordinate force and scant respect for the human rights of people in its custody.

It is therefore not surprising that the measures required to reduce threats to the lives of police officers are, in many instances, the same as those required to prevent police brutality,” Newham wrote.

Indeed. DM

Read more:

Dying on the thin blue line in Daily Maverick;

Carte Blanche report: Police killings – what the numbers really tell us in Daily Maverick.

Photo: National police commissioner general Riah Phiyega and police minister Nathi Mthethwa attend a commemoration day in Pretoria in memory of police members who have lost their lives in the line of duty, Sunday, 27 January 2013. Picture: GCIS/SAPA

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