A violent death in police custody

In this third instalment in a series on police violence, New Frame uncovers how cops allegedly beat and tortured an Ethiopian man, who subsequently died of his injuries.

Adane Emmanuel died a harrowing death. The Ethiopian man was allegedly beaten by police with a bolt cutter before being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a van that was then driven over speed bumps at high speed for over an hour. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is apparently investigating the case, one of a host of police brutality incidents during the Covid-19 lockdown that have been reported to Parliament. The police officers involved in Emmanuel’s death are prepared to produce statements – which should make for interesting reading.

New Frame spoke to Emmanuel’s friends and a resident of Dakota shack settlement in Isipingo, south Durban, who witnessed his arrest. Patching together information about Emmanuel’s last moments was initially challenging. Many of his fellow Ethiopians in Durban are asylum seekers.

Some are undocumented and most are fearful of the authorities.

“I don’t understand this system. I am afraid the police will come back for me. I am not safe,” said Emmanuel’s friend, who was arrested with him. The man’s name is known to New Frame but is being withheld because of his fears of police reprisals. We will call him Yonas Abebe.

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He spoke to New Frame from a spaza shop in downtown Durban. His compatriots encouraged him to speak about Emmanuel’s murder.

Biniyam Wolika from the Ethiopian Refugees Association, which represents about 5 000 people living in the eThekwini metro, facilitated the interview and others with Emmanuel’s brother, Tereker, and his friends Taye Lamango and Tekete Ersdo. The men spoke out because they say foreigners are at the mercy of crooked cops who frequently harass and shake them down. “This is not about Ethiopians or South Africans,” Lamango said. “It is about human beings, and you don’t treat human beings like this.” 

Reporting to Parliament, Ipid said the murder with case number CAS 0097/04/2020 was being probed. On inquiry, Durban police said the case number was CAS 0011/04/2020. While Ipid is supposed to be investigating the murder, none of Emmanuel’s friends or family had been interviewed at the time of writing this story, nor had a Dakota resident who witnessed his arrest.

This is what New Frame established about the Ethiopian refugee and his last moments alive.

The murder scene

In photographs, Adane Emmanuel Wochemo – his full family name – looks quiet and pensive. 

The 35-year-old man was married with two children. He arrived in South Africa eight years ago, hopeful of the opportunities here, where, Wolika says, most Ethiopians sell clothes or run spaza shops.

Emmanuel worked in a family business that runs a few spaza shops, although not the one in Isipingo, about a 20-minute drive south of Durban’s city centre, the site of the incident that led to his murder. Isipingo is a working-class suburb that fronts the sea and adjoins the industrial area of Prospecton. Dakota is a shanty town on a sliver of land between the beach, the suburb and the factories.

Undated: Adane Emmanuel went to help his friend whose spaza shop was allegedly being looted by the police, housed in a shipping container and the site of the incident that led to Emmanuel’s death. (From left, photograph courtesy of Adane Emmanuel’s family / Photograph by Greg Arde)
Undated: Adane Emmanuel went to help his friend whose spaza shop was allegedly being looted by the police, housed in a shipping container and the site of the incident that led to Emmanuel’s death. (From left, photograph courtesy of Adane Emmanuel’s family / Photograph by Greg Arde)

On the afternoon of Tuesday 31 March, a week into the Covid-19 lockdown, Emmanuel was in Durban’s city centre when Abebe got a frantic call from a young Ethiopian man who was tending Abebe’s spaza shop in Dakota. The young Ethiopian said police were breaking into the shop and the community was rioting. He pleaded with Abebe to come quickly. Emmanuel joined Abebe in support and drove to Dakota.

Ken Hayela Tuck Shop is in a rusty shipping container adjoining a house painted blue with a red bougainvillea in the garden. The colours markedly contrast the squalor of an adjoining waste tip, communal toilet and roadside tavern in Dakota.

The settlement is a short walk to the intersection of Ernest Clokie and Outer Circuit roads, which lead to the sea – an important fact for the sake of orientation and critical to any probe into Emmanuel’s murder. The beach is about 1km by road from Dakota. Parts of the road near the beach are deeply rutted. In the expansive parking lot overlooking the beach, there are three speed bumps. The Isipingo Police Station is about 5km away, and 5km further along is the Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital where Emmanuel died.

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Abebe told New Frame that when he and Emmanuel arrived at Dakota at about 3pm, the police were already there and residents were angry. They clashed with South African Police Service members who allegedly tried to break into the tuck shop with bolt cutters. The young Ethiopian man who had called Abebe told New Frame he was inside the container at the time the police started prising open the metal grill that fronts the store. He said when the police used pepper spray through the grill, he scurried out the back and hid among the shacks. A resident of Dakota, who asked not to be named for fear of police victimisation, told New Frame she hurried down from her house when she heard the ruckus outside the tuck shop.

“I saw the police breaking into the container,” the woman said. Residents screamed at them. “We were angry. These people are not criminals. They don’t sell drugs. They help us. The police pulled out their guns and chased us away.” She said the police looted cigarettes, money and airtime. When Emmanuel and Abebe arrived, the police assaulted them.

Emmanuel is killed

The eyewitness said there were two police vehicles and about half a dozen police officers that she saw, including a local station commander, a man known to her. The police shot rubber bullets and chased residents into their homes when they tried to film the incident on cellphones.

Abebe said he and Emmanuel were standing together when the police confronted them.

“They asked if it was my shop. I said yes and they slapped me. I asked what was wrong. They said they would tell me at the police station. They put me in the van.”

Abebe said the windows were covered, but he listened in horror as Emmanuel was clubbed outside with what he believes were the bolt cutters, because Emmanuel was bleeding heavily when he saw him next. “For five or six minutes they beat him.” Recounting the incident, an emotional Abebe heaved and sobbed. He says Emmanuel had gaping wounds, including on his head. “The blood was all over the van.”

16 June 2020: The car park at Isipingo Beach where the police allegedly drove back and forth over speed bumps at high speed with Adane Emmanuel handcuffed in the back of the van. (Photograph by Greg Arde)
16 June 2020: The car park at Isipingo Beach where the police allegedly drove back and forth over speed bumps at high speed with Adane Emmanuel handcuffed in the back of the van. (Photograph by Greg Arde)

Abebe said although he was handcuffed, he tried to cradle Emmanuel on his lap, but it was difficult because the police sped to the beachfront, where they repeatedly drove over the speed bumps and slammed on brakes. “What they did was so cruel. For one-and-a-half hours they played a game, driving up and down.” Abebe says he and Emmanuel were flung around, ramming against the steel cage of the van.

At the police station, he says he begged the police to get Emmanuel, by then unconscious, to hospital. Over an hour later, after protests from Emmanuel’s uncle, he was taken to Prince Mshiyeni hospital where he died.

The police said a postmortem was conducted. 

Wolika said the refugee association raised R40 000 to send Emmanuel’s body to Ethiopia for burial.

Dysfunction in Ipid

Daneel Knoetze is the editor of Viewfinder, an investigative journalism unit focused on police brutality and accountability in South Africa. Last year, Viewfinder exposed that Ipid closed poorly investigated police brutality cases to inflate performance statistics. Knoetze’s work has highlighted Ipid’s obligations when investigating a case. These include interviewing witnesses to police abuse, assault or killing as soon as possible.

“Ipid is historically under-resourced, and this affects its ability to handle its massive caseload.

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“But, this is no excuse for Ipid to falter on complaints of serious police abuses. An allegation related to a killing by police should be properly and immediately investigated. Experts have argued that Ipid must, within its limited resources, prioritise the worst offences by police. To date, Ipid has still not adopted a formal policy for case screening and prioritisation. As a result, serious cases of police abuse remain vulnerable to poor investigative practices and, ultimately, cover-up.”

The fact that eyewitnesses to the killing of Emmanuel said they had not been interviewed by Ipid was consistent with a generalised dysfunction in the directorate’s case management, Knoetze added.

In response to queries from New Frame, Ipid said: “This matter is still undergoing the investigation process. Ipid is experiencing some challenges with some witnesses in terms of cooperation.”

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