Showdown over police inquiry

Photo by Mary-Jane Matsolo.

Tessa Gooding

7 November 2012

On 22 August, in response to a call made in November 2011 from several social justice organisations, Premier Helen Zille established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged police inefficiency and a breakdown in relations between police and communities in Khayelitsha. The commission is being chaired by former Constitutional Court judge, Kate O’Regan and Advocate Vusi Pikoli.

However, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa has taken legal action to stop the Commission. In a press statement on 31 October the Minister described Premier Zille’s decision not to include the Western Cape Metro Police in the Commission’s terms as “suspicious if not questionable.” Yesterday, Mthethwa as well as the National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and Western Cape Police Commissioner Arno Lamoer, lodged an application with the Cape High Court to stop the Commission from proceeding.

Mthethwa in correspondence with Zille dated 16 October 2012 has instead proposed that the National Police Commissioner would oversee an investigation into the complaints of the social justice organisations.

Mthethwa has accused Zille of having a personal vendetta against the SAPS. ”She is determined to continue with the commission by hook or crook, which leaves us with no option but to challenge the matter through the legal framework.”

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC), which has spearheaded the call for the Commission, described Mthethwa’s attempts to postpone the Commission as showing “a fundamental disregard for people’s lives.” In a press statement, the SJC described the inquiry’s first public meeting last Monday as ”a milestone in the struggle to create communities that are safe and secure.”

The SJC’s Joel Bregman told GroundUp, “If we felt that an investigation by the police could [address the systemic problems with policing] then we would seriously consider this as an option. We do not. When we learned of the Minister’s proposal for the police to conduct their own investigation we sent him a number of questions … Instead of responding to our organisations, he sent a letter to the Premier, and did not respond to any of our queries.”

However the SJC agrees that the Western Cape Metro Police should be included in the inquiry. The organisation held protests on Saturday 6 October demanding that it investigate other organisations also responsible for policing and safety in Khayelitsha. This included the Metro Police and other units such as Traffic Services, Law Enforcement and the specialised Anti-Land Invasion Unit.

The SJC says that the Minister of Police has been aware of their complaints since last year and yet has failed to investigate them.

Zille does not believe Mthethwa has the grounds to challenge the inquiry on the basis that it excludes the Western Cape Metro Police. Her spokesperson told GroundUp that it would have been unlawful to include the Metro Police. “The SAPS Act specifically grants power to Community Safety Minister Dan Plato to investigate and deal with complaints against the Metro Police, which he is doing.” She added that the Metro Police were quick to respond to complaints against them, while ”the SAPS failed to respond at all, despite having been given eight months to respond to the complaints against it, including three deadline extensions.” Mthethwa’s spokesperson refused to respond when asked whether the Minister would accept the inquiry if the Metro Police were included.

Disturbing testimony of police failures

Several social justice organisations sent a submission to the Premier with details of alleged police failings in Khayelitsha to support their call for a Commission of Inquiry.

For example, in December 2003, 22 year old Lorna Mlofana, leader of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in her area, was sexually assaulted and murdered by a group of men who had learnt she was HIV positive. The submission states that three years after Lorna’s murder, two of the accused were sentenced. One of the accused, Ntumbukane, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and a concurrent ten years for rape. However, he appealed his sentence and was released from prison. Lorna’s family was not informed of his appeal, and therefore had no opportunity to make a submission to support his continued incarceration. The submission alleges that during the course of the trial TAC members and supporters had to go into hiding because they were threatened by the accused and the police acted insufficiently to protect them. There was also poor handling of forensic evidence – a bloody shoe was not sent for DNA analysis until after the defence had closed its case.

Another case submitted was that of a seven-year-old boy who was raped by a neighbour on his way to the toilet. The neighbour threatened the boy with a knife to dissuade him from telling anyone. The neighbour was arrested. At the bail hearing the state did not oppose bail, claiming that the victim was safe.

When out on bail, the accused returned to the area where the victim lived. He tried to intimidate and threaten the victim and his family, shouting that he would kill them and set their home alight. So the victim’s father opened a case of intimidation. But the police were reluctant to open a case. They finally did, but at one point told the family that they should try to locate the accused and then call the police to come arrest him.

At the next hearing it was announced that the docket had been lost. It later emerged someone had forgotten to take it to court. The case was provisionally withdrawn and the accused walked free.

The mother of the boy told the Social Justice Coalition that ”he does not speak or hear now unless someone touches him, he is traumatised and not the same.” He now lives in fear of being harmed again.

The SJC activist Angy Peter, who was arrested on 14 October for her alleged role in a vigilante killing, had also submitted witness testimony. She told how police fired live shots at a taxi in a busy public place after it had failed to stop following a road accident. People were screaming and running from the scene but three men were hit by police fire and had to be taken to hospital. Peter recounted how she later went to the Lingelethu police station to enquire about the incident. At the station, she was told they had no information because the police officers involved were from Site B police station. However, Peter recognised one of the officers sitting down who had been present at the scene.

At Site B station, Peter was told that the taxi driver who had been chased was not there. However, he was then seen walking out the station. ”We could not believe it,” wrote Peter. ”The constable who had earlier said he could not speak about the case, told us that the suspect had been arrested, and was in the cell. When we protested…the constable told us to leave the police station.”

The submission says that the issue was reported to the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), but the ICD only responded seven months later, stating that the police had been within their rights to open fire and that no action would be taken. 1

  1. The ICD has since been renamed the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.