South Africa

South Africa

Police brutality, and the mass amnesia that threatens to obscure it

Police brutality, and the mass amnesia that threatens to obscure it

Investigating a number of violent cases of police brutality, including the Marikana shootings and the killing of Andries Tatane, INIGO GILMORE uncovered evidence that was profoundly disturbing. Worse, it’s evidence that’s in plain sight – and yet doesn’t seem to have led to any convictions.

Looking at the grim video footage of her late husband’s last moments, Rose Motlhaping chokes up as she contemplated his unnecessary death. On the screen before us police officers are clubbing Andries Tatane and continue to beat him even after he is shot twice at close range. She struggles to hold back tears as Tatane clutches his bleeding chest, his face contorted in agony and disbelief, a man who appears to know he’s dying, but is helpless to stop it.

The day was April 13 2011 and when Tatane’s dying moments were shown, prime time, on the SABC evening news, it stirred outrage and soul searching in South Africa, for a while at least. Now, over two years later, here I was, sitting in the living room of his home, scouring over traumatic video footage of a story that had fast receded from public consciousness. It was the first time his widow had ever looked in any detail at the appalling images, which still now evoke a paroxysm of disgust.

As she pondered the callous indifference and brutality of the police officers pictured in the video before us, her anger, grief and sense of injustice poured out. “Maybe if you are trying to raise your voice and start questioning things you will be killed by our police in our country,” she told me. “I am asking myself whether the police are the ANC’s police – or are they the police of this country?”

It’s a troubling question that was raised time and again as I travelled around South Africa in recent months. My journey to Meqheleng Township, on the edge of the Free state town of Ficksburg, was part of an extensive investigation into police brutality in South Africa for my film South Africa’s Dirty Cops, broadcast on the UK’s acclaimed Channel 4 Dispatches series earlier this week. What I discovered raises many deeply disturbing issues not only around the fate of Andries Tatane but the wider culture of police brutality, impunity and cover-up.

My interest in Tatane’s case had been stirred not only by the manner of his horrific death but also the failure to hold anyone to account for the killing. His widow Rose, clearly a strong and courageous woman, took me to an intersection near her home in the township, with a sprawling graveyard on one side and a kindergarden and church on the other.

Our presence attracted of group of boisterous kids, who scampered forward and pressed their faces up against a fence, peering at us inquisitively. Standing by a stream of raw sewage, Rose claimed that local ANC officials routinely drive past this spot but have failed to address the problems. It was for this reason, she explained, that her husband had been motivated to act. Like millions of other South Africans, Andries Tatane had demanded that elected ANC officials in his area deliver on promises to provide basic services and he wanted answers.

With a sigh of resignation, Rose said: “There is no electricity; there is a shortage of water. As you can see, the streets, they look terrible. This is not good for our health, for our children’s health. This is not good.” I asked Rose why she thought those promises had not been met, and she replied: “We don’t know. We voted for them so that they can deliver. But nothing is happening.”

A frustrated Tatane, 33, a popular figure in the township, helped organise that fateful protest march back in April 2011. In footage filmed by a local activist you can see the charismatic teacher leading the crowd, waving his hands. Massed ranks of men and women pour down a street behind him – singing, chanting and dancing. They are heading towards municipal buildings in the centre of Ficksburg.

Some video footage filmed that day documents how the demonstration moves into the town centre and shows protestors being bundled into a van by police. Tatane can be seen, his shirt removed, rowing with police officers. Local community leaders claim Tatane confronted the police officers because he was furious about the arrests and the way in which police aimed their water cannon at elderly people. Molefe Nonyane, a friend of Tatane who was with him when he died, has been quoted as saying: “When Tatane saw the water cannon spraying the old people he came back, took off his T-shirt and said: ‘Why don’t you shoot me?’”

After he challenged the police, a scuffle ensued. Suddenly a group of officers in riot gear surrounded Tatane and started pummelling him with batons. One officer moved towards Tatane and fired a rubber bullet into his chest at close range. Moments later another officer did the same thing.

As we watched his horrific video, his widow Rose told me: “Even if he showed them that he was surrendering, they didn’t want to listen to anything. But what surprises me is that they said he was fighting back. You cannot just stand when the people are beating you. I don’t understand what was happening. You cannot be beaten and just stand still and do nothing. He was trying to protect himself. But I think he got angry because he put up his hands to show that he was surrendering, but they still attacked him.”

Later in the video footage Tatane can be seen, severely injured, with blood streaming down this chest and torso. As he stands there, clearly in agony, a friend cries out for help. He eventually collapses. According to witnesses, about 20 minutes later he is dead.

Much was made of the behaviour of protestors by the South African authorities who were cast as unruly and accused of provoking and taunting the police. From my side the burning question was this: what has happened to the South African police that they felt it was fine for them beat and shoot an unarmed man, in full view of the cameras, and yet no-one was held to account?

Seven officers were arrested on suspicion of killing Tatane, but all seven were acquitted in March this year when the state’s case fell apart. Police officers changed their statements and the court heard the identities of the accused could not be established, nor their weapons traced. Magistrate Hein van Niekerk found the State could not prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and said it was not possible to identify the officers because they were wearing helmets.


I wanted to see the evidence for myself, first hand. I learnt that three cameras captured video of the protests that day, including key moments in Tatane’s beating, shooting and death: an SABC camera, a police camera and the video camera of a local activist. As I was attempting to piece together what happened from all the available evidence, I approached the National Prosecuting Authority which had conducted the failed prosecution against police officers linked to Tatane’s killing. They informed me that everything they had gathered for the case had been returned to the court.

As I arrived in Ficksburg, I telephoned the judge in the case, Magistrate van Niekerk. He told that I would indeed by able to access all the evidence from the court in Ficksburg and that I should take a hard drive with me so I could do the necessary copying of that material. But at the court I was informed by officials that the video and court documents were no longer there. They suggested I contact the law courts in the nearby town of Bethlehem. It dawned on me that maybe I was chasing an elusive wandering star that even the wisest of wise men might struggle to locate.

Predictably perhaps court officials in Bethlehem could offer no help. I was referred to the Department of Justice in Bloemfontein. Here again it was impossible to get any clear answers. After weeks of being given the runaround I could not help but wonder if deliberate obstacles were being put in my way. Despite my own efforts – and that of two researchers in UK and SA – I was unable to locate or access any of video evidence or court documents via the law courts or South African agencies that dealt with the case, even though I had been informed that under South African law I was entitled to do so.

In addition, when I approached SABC to access the full footage their cameraman filmed that day, I drew a blank. After an exchange with the channel’s archive department I was informed that they would not release the video to me, and told me that this was a “top management decision”.

But I was determined to keep at it, and finally I did manage to get my hands on the “activist” video, filmed that day by an activist from the township. The footage is extensive and what I discovered astonished me. Sitting in an edit suite in London, we quickly realised that by closely following the weapons of the two police officers who shot Tatane and by staying focused on those weapons, it was possible to identify who shot him.

In a way I suppose it’s a bit like some sports channels that show live football matches, where you can follow an individual player in a box as well as the game itself. Just as you might stay with the player, we focused on the individual officers from the moment the weapons were fired, scrolling backwards and forwards through the footage until we found we could identify them.

The camera continues to roll in the moments after the officers have both shot Tatane, and then one after the other, in the video, both officers appear, their faces clearly visible. One of the officers, a burly man with bulky frame shoulders, comes around and stands alongside Tatane, who is now badly injured and clearly in agony.

The second police shooter, clutching his weapon, also appears, standing at the end of a line of three officers, looking a bit sheepish. As I write, I am looking at two screen grab images where the faces of the two officers who shot Tatane are there, clearly identifiable. If these men were brought before an ID parade they could easily be linked to the screen grabs and would be recognisable in an instant. The magistrate in the prosecution case said the policemen were wearing helmets and that is certainly true – but their faces are still visible.

So how was it that state prosecutors were in a unique and enviable position in such a case – where they had compelling and incriminating footage evidence to pin on the accused – but still failed to secure a conviction? It also made me wonder what might be lurking in the police and SABC footage.

I tracked down a journalist who had attended the Tatane trial and had also been perplexed by the State’s handling of their own case. The journalist told me: ‘The State guided the witnesses through the footage to keep track of the accused, but didn’t use stills or pictures to identify their faces at any point. It (the video evidence) didn’t crop. It didn’t zoom in. And even though some witnesses did explicitly point out the accused using this process, all of these witnesses were badly discredited in cross-examination.”

Tatane had set himself up as an independent candidate to stand against the ruling ANC party in local council elections. His widow Rose is not only incredulous that the case fell apart but also sees the hand of political interference in the outcome. “I don’t understand why they cannot prove because in this case there is the footage that you can look and say this is the person who did this,” she said.

She believes that police may have changed their testimony, knowing that they had the full backing of their political masters and might well get away with it.

“The Minister of Safety in Free State was talking on the radio, in the newspapers, all over, saying the police were just doing their job… So I started suspecting that it would end up like this, that they would walk free.”

I asked her why she connected these two thoughts, and she replied: “Because the ANC is our ruling party, so if they say anything they’ve got a lot of power, they’ve got powers, they can do everything that they want.”

Why, I asked, would they want to cover up for the police in this case? She said she was still seeking answers to this question, but she suspected that the fact that Tatane had left the ANC might have something to do with it, saying: “He (Tatane) went from ANC to Cope, I think that was the reason. And they hate that he was questioning the councillors, from Meqheleng, the ANC councillors.”

While making the film, we attempted to speak to the provincial MEC for police, Butana Khompela, but despite numerous approaches and offers to come and meet him in Bloemfontein, we were told he was too busy to meet us.

With many unanswered questions still hanging over both the case and the conduct of the NPA, we also learned that the NPA was twice warned by IPID over the way they were conducting the prosecution, both before the court case started and during it.

The outcome of the Tatane case further underlined claims that even when the South African police act with brutality, they operate within a culture of impunity, where citizens have no consistent and fair recourse to take action when innocent people become victims. After many attempts to talk to government ministers for my film – all of them declined – I finally managed to get a short interview with South Africa’s under-fire police commissioner, Riah Phiyega.

When I asked her about how police in South Africa appeared to act with impunity, she replied: ‘The whole issue around perception and policing is not unique to this country. You will get it in your country, you will recall when you had your riots in the streets your society was up in arms about your police and it is precisely because of that paradox that shall always be there around policing.’

I pointed out that 720 people died in South Africa as a result of police action or in police custody in the last recorded year (2012) and suggested to her: “These things happen: it is not perception, this is reality.”

The commissioner rebutted my reply, and in an unusual defence, said somewhat cryptically: “But have you ever taken time to analyse what is sitting in there? Was it people who died of AIDS? Was it people brought into the station injured? You’ve never dismembered it. What you have done is taken an anecdotal view of the stats.”

I replied: “Commissioner, there’s case upon case where the police have acted above the law, where they’ve killed, where they’ve tortured people and they are not punished, how can you explain that to South African people?” I mentioned the Tatane case and the failure of the prosecution.

She replied: “Do you tell the judge what to do? What is important is to say, we, as SAPS, are very committed to the rights of the people of this country.”

But the evidence I uncovered in my film challenges such claims. In addition to the Tatane case, we also shed light on the use of torture and how the police are rarely prosecuted over such abuses. In the film we meet a 14-year-old boy who had been severely tortured by the police in a toilet of a police station and another man who had been tortured using electric shocks, one of four such cases at just one police station. None of the police involved have been suspended, let alone prosecuted. The 14-year-old boy said he has nightmares about the police, and what I asked what happened in those nightmares, he replied quietly: “Coming to kill all of us.”

Part of the film further explores what happened in Marikana, where once again none of the police officers have been suspended. Some of the previously unseen footage and images we obtained further underscores claims of execution style killings, misconduct and a systematic cover-up by the South African police.

In previously unbroadcast video, a large man in an ill-fitting bright orange top writhes around on the ground, surrounded by dead and injured co-workers, at the scene of the initial shooting in Marikana. A policeman steps forward and stamps on his back.

Somehow Mongezeleli Ntenetya, with bullets embedded in his body, desperately attempts to get to his feet, before he collapses face-down into the dust, where he’s left to die. A large line of police officers, their guns primed, look on; but none of them step in to help the man, or check on others who might be injured.

We also show police photos taken at a scene near the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, where most of the miners died. These pictures show the bodies of miners with their hands behind their backs, and what seem to be plastic cuffs close by. In the photos, taken by police investigators in the aftermath of the massacre, one of the dead miners lies on his side among some rocks, his head by a tree. His shoulders are pinned back and his hands pressed close together, the wrists almost touching.

In another photo a dead miner in jeans and a tracksuit top lies face down on a rock, one of his hands behind his back and palm facing upwards. Sections of cable cuffs can be seen close to his body. The photos raise disturbing questions about the manner in which the men were killed.

The cable ties may have just been cut, perhaps before the photos were taken, leading to speculation about whether miners were shot dead while handcuffed. At the scene of the second koppie, I interviewed Shadrack Mtshamba, a miner who told me he witnessed co-workers being shot as they tried to surrender.

Shadrack told me: “We were not carrying weapons. They came here to come and running from the police. Coming here to hide. One of the guys was raising his hands like this. Then the bullet shot him on the head and he fell on his face.”

Seeking clarification, I asked whether the man was surrendering when he was shot. Shadrack replied: “He was trying to surrender. The other one behind him made the very same thing, in raising his hands, trying to surrender. He was also shot dead. So, I was just thinking to myself that I am going to die too.”

There are also many disturbing questions about police tampering with evidence at the scene. In one police photo a dead miner can be seen on his back by a rock and the next photo showing the man in an identical position; but now at night – a machete with a bright yellow handle lies by his right hand. The machete was was not there in the intial photographs.

As I ponder the grim and depressing picture of widespread police brutality we have uncovered over several months of investigation, I wonder about the often muted reaction of South Africans who once stood up so bravely in face of appalling human rights abuses, and I keep coming back to the words of Rose, Andries Tatane’s widow. She said at the end of the interview: “We are scared from the police, we are afraid of the police, but this is the new South Africa.”

Rather like with the Tatane case, Marikana has provoked angry denunciations but a somewhat confused response from the South African public. It seems that many want the police to get tough with criminals and encourage them to do so, but are then appalled when the police act with extreme brutality against citizens – including many innocent victims- and seem hamstrung by this conundrum.

I recall an exchange with a South African friend, a former activist, after a report I made for Channel 4 News earlier this year, showing police video from the scene of the Second Koppie at Marikana, where police boasted about killing one of the miners, shooting him at least ten times.

My friend wrote to me, saying: “I made people watch that video and they all turned their heads away and tried to change the subject. Mass amnesia. I guess it’s the only coping mechanism for the new middle classes.” DM


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