South Africa

Khayelitsha ‘Truth Commission’: Gangs running riot, traumatised youth, faulty CCTV cameras and AWOL dockets

By Kate Stegeman 12 February 2014

As the Khayelitsha Commission enters its fourth week, local residents and expert witnesses continue to make damning allegations against the police with regards to their often inept and sometimes callous responses to criminal activity. Amid lost dockets, shabby crime scene investigations, a demoralised police force and an inability to curb rampant gang violence, teenage boys are stabbed, school learners are too terrified to attend class and a Khayelitsha man who confessed to killing his own children is yet to be prosecuted, let alone re-arrested. By KATE STEGEMAN.

Testifying in front of the O’Regan/ Pikoli Khayelitsha Policing Commission recently, Vuyiseka Mpekweni explained what happened when police escorted her to her sister’s house late one night in 2007. Upon arrival she discovered her sister’s shack “was burnt down… there were black heaps that looked like people… the policeman with dogs pointed out that a wire was tied to the door to ensure that nobody could escape”.

Mpekweni’s sister, her niece (nine years old at the time), nephew (then 17) and two other children had been burnt to death. She was later informed by a detective at Harare station that her sister’s husband and father of the children had handed himself over to the police and confessed to the multiple murder.

However, despite the man being charged and appearing in court, Mpekweni testified, “the magistrate said they couldn’t keep him because the docket had been lost”.

While out on bail, she heard from community members that her brother-in-law had fled to Johannesburg. When Mpekweni took his photograph to the Harare police station and requested they send it on to police stations in Johannesburg, she alleged that a detective told her, “You must investigate where in Johannesburg he is, Joburg is a big place…”

Visibly shaken, she went on to tell the Commission, “I was heartbroken and could not believe he was making me do the work of the police.”

A few days after this emotionally charged testimony, Ms Rochelle Harmse, Senior Public Prosecutor at Khayelitsha Magistrates’ court, testified last Monday that dockets were often not brought to court by investigating officers, resulting in numerous serious cases of murder, rape and assault being postponed or thrown out of court.

Over and above lost dockets, crime scenes investigations are also botched or simply left unattended.

During her recent oral submission to the Commission, Professor Debra Kaminer from University of Cape Town’s Department of Psychology and Child Guidance Clinic, who conducted a study entitled ‘The Prevalence and Psychological Impact of Exposure to Violence Amongst Children in Khayelitsha’, showed a West Cape news photograph of children playing next to the charred remains of a necklaced body lying in an open field. This image clearly showed that the apparent vigilante killing crime scene had not been cordoned off by police tape, but also that young children were being exposed to the after-effects of extreme violence.

Forensic experts last week also gave further evidence of the pervasive problem of compromised crime scenes. According to testimony provided by Kevin Jones and Dr Shabbir Wadee from the Department of Forensic Pathology in the Western Cape, it was alleged that Khayelitsha-based investigating officers often left crime scenes before any forensic pathologists arrived, which in turn led to numerous instances of evidence being contaminated.

Furthermore, Jones testified that post-mortem reports often didn’t end up in dockets, causing unnecessary delays in court cases.

Earlier Kaminer had told the Commission that Cape Town had the highest rate of youth homicide in South Africa, homicide being the leading cause of death for 15-19 year olds. Furthermore, research has shown that there is a particularly high prevalence of children being exposed to violence in Khayelitsha.

According to a study done by Cluver et al in 2008 amongst 1,025 10-19 year olds (two thirds from Khayelitsha and Macassar), 46% had witnessed a stabbing and 32% had witnessed a shooting. Kaminer then drew on the findings of Shields et al (2008, 2009) to say that amongst 247 8-13 year olds (with 20% being from Khayelitsha), 75% had witnessed a beating in the community, while 24% had been assaulted with a weapon.

And while Kaminer stressed that the research methodology differed, it is interesting to note that comparatively, USA studies reveal only 0.3% of American children have witnessed a murder and 5% have been assaulted with a weapon.

Kaminer went on to say that the high prevalence of exposure of Khayelitsha youth to violence means learners live in fear, with many of them experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and sometimes aggression. As a result, school performance is negatively impacted because the school learner’s “survival brain cannot co-exist with the learning brain… children are busy planning how they will get themselves safely home from school, focusing on avoiding danger” rather than listening to their teachers.

A little over a week ago, a Khayelitsha-based mother testified that both her son and daughter were reluctant to go to school because of the gangsters terrorising school learners in and outside of the classroom.

Back in 2012, she begged her son, in grade ten at the time, to go to school. He replied “Mummy, must I go to prove this to you? Is it me who must be hacked [sic]?”

She further testified that still today her daughter does not want to go to school on Fridays due to the high instances of gang attacks on that day. Explaining to the Commission that she had lost faith in the police’s duty to protect her children and after seeing “a large group of boys with pangas” near a school that caused “my knees to dance” in fear, she eventually sought help from taxi drivers.

When asked by the Commission’s evidence leader Adv. Sidaki whether any money was involved, she replied “Oh it’s free, free of charge.”

Yesterday Dr Kelly Gillespie, senior social anthropology lecturer and researcher at Wits University, talked about her field research on vigilante violence in Khayelitsha. ”Mob justice is in part a sign of the deep distrust that the community had of the criminal justice system,” said Gillespie.

Currently in Khayelitsha, there is a spike in youth violence because of the recent emergence of two groups called the amaVura and the amaVatos, usually made up of boys between the ages of 12 -18… These ‘gangs’ have spawned a myriad of splinter groups that are operational in most of Khayelitsha’s schools,” added Gillespie. Gillespie later termed these groups proto-gangs, i.e. less formalised and organised that established gangs like the Americans operating in the Cape flats, for example.

The Commission also recently heard evidence from Sonja Basson, a social worker based in a local children’s home, who talked about a boy she described as being “like a son and a brother to the other kids” being stabbed by gang members outside the children’s home she used to work in, “killed in front of a place that was supposed to be protected”.

She went on to mention the numerous unanswered calls to Khayelitsha police stations made her fellow children’s home staff members in the middle of the night in a desperate attempt to keep gangs at bay.

However, unlike the mother who had put her faith in taxi drivers, Basson cautioned that the taxi drivers meting out vigilante justice often became “dangerous and aggressive” and that they could be indiscriminate and even attack innocent children.

She went on to claim that Khayelitsha’s gangs provoke and have no respect for the police, that when they run away after committing an offence “they call them names and mock them”.

Before police get more training, Basson noted, “I think they need to recommit to the ethics of their profession”. She also added that police were demoralised and “not informed enough” about how to deal with youth violence in particular.

Yoliswa Dwane, testifying on behalf of Khayelitsha-based NGO Equal Education, said that she, too, believed police were not properly trained to deal with gang violence. She also hit out at the province, saying she had written to the Western Cape Department of Education “even before the gangs erupted” but the “programmes are non existent… the MECs announced they will send police to do search and seizures, but those are one-off events.”

Disillusioned with politicians and “their empty promises made at press statements”, Dwane testified that the province’s resources were being channelled into problem areas like Manenberg, but not Khayelitsha.

Dwane added that she would like to see cameras set up in crime hot spots, notably outside schools.

CCTV footage is an essential part of the evidence needed in crime investigations. Rochelle Haremse, Khayelitsha’s senior prosecutor, earlier testified that the dockets often reflected that there was no camera near the scene or that “the camera was not functioning”.

This is where the City of Cape Town gets brought into the fray. Yesterday Mr Kevin Cole and Mr Charl Moller from the Transport Management Centre testified that of the sixteen CCTV cameras installed in Khayelitsha in 2003, only 10 were currently working.

Last week Adv. Nazreen Bawa, the Commission’s other evidence leader, pressed Richard Bosman, Executive Director of the Directorate of Safety and Security in the City of Cape Town, about why there why CCTV cameras were not operational. Bosman responded that the CCTV camera in Khayelitsha’s Mew Way Bridge was subject to vandalism and copper cable theft.

Eskom refused to repair it; it would cost R150,000 to repair,” Bosman said.

While the city is not a direct respondent in this probe, they have argued the terms of reference of the Commission are significantly narrow and pertain specifically to the role of SAPS, and considering the testimony provided by Haremse in terms of the need for CCTV footage in criminal cases, its is difficult to deny the City’s pivotal role in security related service delivery in Khayelitsha.

In the city’s defence, despite capturing recording of criminal incidents, Cole testified that while detectives gathered camera footage as evidence, he has yet to be called to testify in the Khayelitsha Magistrates’ court in criminal matters using camera footage.

While the commission continues, Mpekweni has still not heard from SAPS whether her brother-in-law has been re-arrested for the murder of her sister and children. She testified, “That is where I lost trust in the police; I gave up… but I still remember the pain of those kids and that is why I decided to come to this Truth Commission. I am hoping to get help with the police who did not care; as if nothing happened.”

Last week Justice O’Regan reminded the Commission that “we are not a Truth Commission, as one of the witnesses put it”; furthermore, the probe’s limited terms of reference cannot guarantee that the community members’ testimonies will lead to any convictions. But while actual justice may not be achieved, Khayelitsha residents’ hope seems to lie in the realisation of a sense of perceived justice, and that the Commission’s recommendations will lead to a drastic improvement in policing in the near future. DM

Photo by Kate Stegeman.


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