Covid-19

CORONAVIRUS #LOCKDOWN

Rogue cops in Durban demand ‘protection fee’ from spazas

Illustrative Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Durban traders accuse police officers of extorting money in exchange for permission to continue doing business during Covid-19 lockdown.

Spaza shop and tavern owners say they are under siege from rogue police officers who are allegedly harassing them to pay cash amounts in order to be allowed to operate during the Covid -19 nationwide lockdown.

Shop owners who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, told Mukurukuru Media in Ilovu, a quiet settlement under the eThekwini Municipality located on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, that they are being targeted by cops.

“They are targeting foreign-owned shops demanding protection fees. They tell us that if we do not pay up, they will instruct some of the locals to harass us. They do not allow anyone to open unless you pay the fee upfront,” said one shop owner.

He said there was a group of four police officers who invaded their shops, forcing those who don’t accede to their demand to close down or face imminent arrest. 

“This situation has compelled some of us to source money from friends and relatives so that we can pay them,” lamented the store owner. 

Like many townships in KZN, most spaza shops in Ilovu are leased by locals to foreign nationals, mainly Somalis and Pakistanis. 

Themba Ndaba, a ward committee member, confirmed that he had received grievances from the concerned shop owners.

“Many supermarkets are too far from the township, so spaza shops provide a much-needed relief in the midst of the Corona crisis. We have also received complaints from local tavern owners who say that despite them adhering to the set rules prohibiting the selling of liquor, police are unlawfully confiscating liquor and selling it elsewhere. There is one home owned by a police sergeant where this liquor is then sold to locals,” said Ndaba.

Rashad Fakru Sahhib, the spokesperson for KZN Somali Business Association, said extortion of money from their members by police had escalated since the lockdown. 

“We have been receiving many reports from our members, of police coercing them and demanding bribes. Some of our members have resorted to closing their businesses because police are threatening them every day demanding bribes,” said Sahhib.

He said the hostile relations were further exacerbated by the initial announcement by Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who said only spaza shops owned by South African citizens were allowed to operate during the lockdown period. The decision was later reversed. 

“Police jumped on this bandwagon and they have been tormenting our members non-stop. Mind you, some of our members are now naturalised South Africans, which means they enjoy any constitutional right enjoyed by other fellow citizens,” he added.

KZN police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala said the complaints of extortion had not been brought to the attention of the police. 

“But should any member of the public have any form of grievance against a police officer, they can contact Ipid [the Independent Police Investigative Directorate] as they are the ones tasked with investigating and dealing with allegations of police misconduct,” said Gwala. 

Meanwhile, Ipid said on Friday it was investigating a string of cases on inappropriate police behaviour since the lockdown began a week ago. The offences include the death of eight civilians, allegedly at the hands of the men and women in blue.

Ipid also reported that out of the eight deaths under investigation, two cases related to people who died while in police custody. The deceased are alleged to have died as a result of police brutality. 

The police watchdog encouraged people to report cases as they happen, despite the lockdown. Apart from the deaths, Ipid said they were investigating more than 50 cases of alleged police brutality since the lockdown began. The majority of the complaints were filed in KwaZulu-Natal.

Mary de Haas, KZN violence monitor and researcher, said the approach by the police was as a result of a “premature” crime-fighting strategy employed by police minister Bheki Cele.

“This state of affairs further erodes trust that exists between the public and police,” said De Haas. The trust deficit was a result of ordinary citizens who didn’t feel safe at the hands of police, said de Haas.

She said the tactics used by police were the same as that employed by apartheid police victimising innocent citizens. 

“Police are essentially a law unto themselves and to change this there should be an overhaul of the crime monitoring and fighting strategy. This includes retraining some police officers on what combating crime entails,” said de Haas. 

Besides the wayward behaviour of the police, members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) have also come under scrutiny after images circulated on social media which depicted them assaulting members of the public. 

In some of the footage, soldiers can be seen forcefully snatching groceries from innocent people. In some images soldiers are seen compelling members of the public to perform physical exercises as a way of punishment for failure to adhere to the lockdown rules as set out by the national command council, an interim government structure made up of ministers keeping citizens abreast of developments on Covid-19, including related deaths.

Soldiers were dispatched to help police in managing and controlling the movement of people during the lockdown.

Following the public outcry, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula condemned the acts, saying they were inappropriate and uncalled for. This included a strong statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said soldiers should not harass citizens — instead, they should provide “hope and comfort” in the difficult time the country faces. 

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala said that while law enforcement agencies should be condemned for wrongdoing, so should citizens who blatantly refused to obey the rules. 

“You can’t be found on the street gallivanting and disobeying the rules and expect to be treated with kid gloves. The situation calls for every citizen to come to the party in order to reduce the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on human lives,” said Zikalala. MC

By Mukurukuru Media.

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