Police in Mzamba in the Eastern Cape appear to have ignored a national instruction not to use live ammunition for crowd control, fatally wounding two people - a 34-year-old woman, allegedly shot in the back - and a 19-year-old man, as well as injuring 11 others after a truck transporting sugar and rice lost its load on the R61 at Plangweni near Lurholweni village yesterday. By MARIANNE THAMM.
After the fatal shootings, which occurred around 10 am near Plangweni Location, the Eastern Cape SAPS corporate communication provincial media centre issued a formal media statement. Its language is telling.
“A violent mob” is how the statement describes the unarmed group of residents who had rushed to the roadside with the hope of opportunistically gathering up 10kg bags of sugar and rice that had slipped off a Bayview Liner truck that had stalled on steep incline and had rolled backwards.
By late yesterday it was confirmed that Mhlophe Cele, 34-year-old mother of an eight-month-old infant, and a 19-year-old learner, Silindile Ndzimakhwe, had been shot dead. Two of the injured were reported to be in a critical condition at the Nelson Mandela Academic hospital in Mthatha, while at least nine others had been treated and discharged. An eight-year-old boy and several other bystanders were reportedly hit by stray bullets. No police were injured.
Angry members of the community met on Tuesday and have vowed to march on the Mzamba police station on Friday to demand that officers stationed there be removed. Two cases of murder and 11 of attempted murder have been lodged by the community against police.
Meanwhile an investigator from The Independent Police Investigation Directorate (IPID) was dispatched to the scene to gather evidence.
Ntlahla Hlebo, a Ward Councillor with the Mbizana Local Municipality, rushed immediately to the scene and told the Daily Maverick that he had seen the body of the dead woman and that she had been shot in the back.
“She had a deep wound in her back. There was a lot of blood. There is no way a rubber bullet could have caused that injury,” he said.
Hlebo said that the truck driver had summoned police when residents from Plangweni Location had emerged shortly after the vehicle had stalled and lost part of its load.
“People started taking some of the bags of rice. The area was demarcated and the police warned them to stop. The trouble started when a bakkie arrived and the police allowed the man to load up the rice. Before that people said that police themselves had taken some of the supplies,” said Hlebo.
It appears police either did not inform or were unable to convince the crowd, who had grown angry by then, that the man in the bakkie was a manager from the truck company attempting to recover some of the supplies.
Brigadier Marinda Mills, spokesperson for the SAPS in the region, said that the arrival of the manager “agitated members of the community.”
“Those standing close by became angry because they did not want the goods to be loaded back onto the truck or taken away by the manager. Initially an exchange of words and threats ensued. Subsequently members of the public became violent and grabbed the manager, threatening to kill him as they forcefully pulled him in the direction of Plangweni Location. Police intervened and freed the manager from the angry group,” she said in the statement.
Mills said the some members of the group had pelted the manager and police with stones “whilst advancing again towards the direction of the truck and its load. Police members tried to find cover underneath the trailer of the truck but the group kept advancing, throwing stones at them. The police members fired warning shots but it seemed not to have the desired impact to scare the mob away.”
But Hlebo said that police had appeared totally ill-equipped to deal with the volatile situation and in had in fact exacerbated it.
“There was one policewoman in particular who was very aggressive and angry. She was very threatening, telling the people she would kill them,” said Hlebo.
Hlebo said that the relationship between the community and the Mzamba police was “not good” and had remained fraught since 2008 after a series of gruesome “muti” murders in the region. At least 18 women were killed in five months before three men were arrested and later sentenced to life in the Eastern Cape High Court.
Police attending yesterday’s incident should not have been issued with live ammunition as it is contrary to a National Instruction which specifically recommends that force should be avoided “at all costs” and that police should be able to display “a high degree of tolerance.”
The SAPS Standing Order No 262 on Crowd Management and the National Municipal Policing Standard for Crowd Management states: “The use of force and dispersal of crowds must comply with the requirements of section 9 (1) and (2) of the SAPS act. The standing order further puts in place the procedure(s) to be followed by the police if negotiations fail in a public gathering which exposes the lives of people and property to danger. At the same time the standing order also prescribes the requirements which are to be followed by the police if the use of force becomes unavoidable.”
The fatal shootings in the Eastern Cape have occurred in the same week that police have been accused of assaulting a Cape Town grandmother, Roseline Appolis, as well as manhandling Eugene Nel, the former mayor of Lichtenberg, while attempting to arrest him.
In July the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the South African Policing Union (SPU) presented a report to the Portfolio Committee on Police showing that the number of cases of police brutality had risen in 2012/13 with 4,097 cases of assault and torture being investigated by the IPID. This, investigators told the committee, amounted to around 11 cases a day.
Gareth Newham, of the ISS, told the committee that senior police management needed to “take full responsibility and be held directly accountable for changing the culture, behaviour and performance of the police.”
Trucks in South Africa, particularly those travelling on routes as narrow and dangerous as the R61, regularly lose loads and while certainly illegal, police should be more than prepared to deal with people, who are often hungry and impoverished, who will take advantage of the situation.
To shoot dead two unarmed citizens who were part of a group that appears not to have outnumbered police speaks once again to the crisis of policing in this country, which reached its tragic and shameful zenith with the death of 44 people during the Marikana massacre when police opened fire with live ammunition on striking miners. The echoes continue daily. DM