Opinionista Axolile Notywala 4 February 2019

My brutal ordeal with SAPS Public Order Policing Unit

After firing rubber bullets and using stun grenades at the Cape Town Civic Centre against a group of peaceful protesters, including women with babies on their backs, SAPS officers arrested General Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition Axolile Notywala. He says they handcuffed him and slapped him until he knelt on the floor of a police minibus before they took him to Cape Town Central police station. This is his story.

On Thursday 31 January 2019, I witnessed and experienced brutality and violence from the South African Police Service’s Public Order Policing unit that was reminiscent of the apartheid South African Police Force. Their lack of understanding of protest law and their incompetence is astounding.

At about 10:30 am in the middle of a peaceful protest outside the doors of the Cape Town Civic Centre, between 10 to 15 members of the SAPS Public Order Policing Unit and Cape Town Metro Police officers, ascended the stairs in full combat gear with rifles, teargas and stun grenades towards the protesters. I moved towards the front of the group of protesters to try to talk to the police officers.

To my surprise (because this has never happened before at our protests) they started getting into combat position, one behind the other with their rifles pointed at us. They charged at us.

I moved towards an SAPS member at the front, a certain Warrant Officer Collins. I tried to speak to him to understand why they were there and seemingly trying to disperse peaceful protesters. His response was to reach into his vest for stun grenades and threw one behind me at the protesters. This can be seen in this video taken by Anele Mfazwe of Die Son.

I covered my ears with my hands as more stun grenades were thrown and rubber bullets fired. The peaceful protesters screamed and ran away. A woman on crutches fell to the ground as others ran down the stairs. There were women with children on their backs who were forced to run down a steep and long flight of stairs as the SAPS and Metro Police officers charged behind them with rifles.

I went to the SAPS officers and asked them why they did that. I couldn’t understand why they would act like that towards poor, peaceful black protesters. Or maybe I do. It’s because they are poor and black.

I asked why they didn’t talk to us like people. Why did they have to shoot at people who were just there trying to speak to Mayor Dan Plato about poor services? Why shoot at unarmed, peaceful protesters standing up for their rights to water and dignified toilets?

I pointed at the woman on the floor who was not moving, to show them what they had done. I asked them to help the woman and call an ambulance for her. They told me someone else would do that.

I then noticed while speaking to them that most of the officers’ name tags were hidden. With the belief that that was unlawful, I asked them while recording on my phone what their names were and asked where their name tags were. That was then when Warrant officer Collins, who was one of few that had their name tags visible, grabbed and pulled me and said he was arresting me.

He put handcuffs on me. I did not resist arrest, as he later alleged. I felt one side of the cuffs was very tight and hurting my wrist. I was in pain. I screamed and asked him to loosen it as it was hurting my arm. He ignored me.

I asked him what I was being arrested for. I was never told. They instead started communicating in Afrikaans. I asked them to please speak English as I do not understand Afrikaans. They ignored me and continued talking in Afrikaans. I assumed they were discussing what they would charge me with, which is why I wanted to hear what they were saying. I was never told.

They then took me through the Civic Centre to an exit on the other side of the building, though their vehicles were in front of the stairs. I asked why they were taking me there and not to their vehicles just in front of the stairs. They ignored me.

On the other side of the building, we waited for a vehicle. I kept telling Warrant Officer Collins that the cuffs were hurting me. He ignored me. My wrist was sore. I was in pain.

A SAPS Quantum kombi eventually showed up. In it, there were three other officers: The driver and a male and a female officer sitting on the back seat. Warrant Officer Collins put me in the vehicle and put me on one of the vacant seats behind the male officer. The male officer turned to me and said I should not be on the seat — I should sit on the floor of the kombi. I looked at him, confused because there were so many vacant seats. He slapped me twice on my face and said I should sit on the floor. This time the kombi was moving. I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond. He slapped again three times, saying I must sit on the kombi floor. The other officers said nothing.

Warrant Officer Collins who put me on that seat was on his phone and said nothing. The female officer on the back seat was also on her phone and said nothing. Realising I would be hurt more I refused to move from the seat, I knelt on the floor because I was still in handcuffs.

On the way to the police station, three more officers (two male and one female) entered the kombi. One male officer sat on the passenger seat in front. The other two got into the back. Since I was on the passage on the floor I was blocking their way. The one male officer asked me to move and sit on the seat. I said I was told to sit here. The officer who assaulted me told him to leave me there because that’s where I belong.

The driver responded and said leave him (talking about me), he was “policed” so he is being compliant. They laughed. I realised that being policed meant being slapped. This is what the South African Police Service calls policing.

I was on the floor on my knees in handcuffs for a duration of about 10 minutes for the drive to the SAPS Central Police Station. I was in pain.

I got into the police station with Warrant Officer Collins. There were other suspects accused of different crimes. I realised I was the only one in handcuffs. I asked Warrant Officer Collins if the handcuffs were still necessary because my wrist was getting swollen. He then asked for a key from another officer and removed the handcuffs. I was in handcuffs from almost two hours. My wrists were sore and swollen.

With all this happening, I was never read my rights and I was still not told what I was arrested for.

Then came the incompetence. Warrant Officer Collins started writing down a statement and taking my details. He wrote the statement in Afrikaans. But I didn’t question that because I still did not know what he was charging me with. He was on his phone messaging while he was writing the statement. Because he hadn’t charged me, I assumed he was communicating with his colleagues about what to charge me with. My assumption was proven when he got a call and left the room with the statement he was writing. A few minutes later he came back and had charges for me.

He told me he was charging me with contravention of the Gatherings Act, incitement of a crowd and resisting arrest. He could not tell me this until over two hours after he arrested me.

I signed the statement and he then eventually showed me my rights as a detainee but said I can read for myself. I complied and I signed.

I was taken to the cells and spent about an hour while the processing was being finalised. I was then released on a warning to appear at the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday, 6 February 2019. I have been charged with contravening Section 12(1) (g) and (j) of the Regulation of Gatherings Act.

I am frustrated and angry at the conduct of people who are supposed to be protecting us. The incompetence I witnessed from a warrant officer is beyond shocking. The violence meted out to poor, peaceful black protesters is infuriating. This has happened for far too long.

I will have my day in court to defend myself. But I will not rest until Warrant Officer Collins, the officer who assaulted me in the kombi and all those who shot at poor, peaceful black protesters are held to account. DM

Axolile Notywala is a social justice activist. He is the General Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition.

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