Bradley Van Harte, 40, holds his shoulder as he stands outside the bright red gate of his home in a narrow lane of Hanover Park in Cape Town. The house is immediately distinguishable from those of his neighbours because it is freshly painted. A circular red bruise above his left cheekbone is one telltale sign that he might be hurt.
“Is jy oraait (are you alright)?” a man asks as he slows his walk to look at Van Harte with curiosity. Van Harte smiles, nods his head quickly and looks away.
Almost two weeks ago, Van Harte was violently beaten and left unconscious in the street outside his house. He and his fiancée, Monique Lottering, have opened a case with military police against soldiers in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for the attack.
“I was lying here in this corner,” he says pointing to behind the red gate. “They were tramping and kicking me and then they pulled me outside. When we came outside, I just fell after a few blows to my head and I was unconscious.”
The SANDF has been working with police for almost a month in the Cape Flats. This is the first instance where charges have been laid against the military for assault during the anti-gang operation, which began in mid-July.
It was Sunday, 4 August. Lottering was in a celebratory mood. It was her 31st birthday. At about 8pm, a convoy of SANDF soldiers and police officers passed by the couple’s home as they stood by their red gate. Lottering recalls a man, dressed in plainclothes, who detached from the convoy of security forces to ask her if everything was okay.
The man, who the couple allege is a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS), then turned to Van Harte.
“He asked Bradley ‘Why are you looking at me?’ And Bradley said ‘I can look wherever I want to’. The guy then told me, ‘Dame, staan terug’ (Lady, stand back),” Lottering remembers.
The couple recall how the man attempted to open the gate and pull Van Harte out, but when Van Harte resisted, the red gate was kicked down and the man called the soldiers to come inside.
“He told the army ‘Kom in hier’ (Come in here). I don’t know if the army thought maybe he found something, but when they came, they just started beating Bradley. They didn’t even ask questions,” Lottering says, remembering that three soldiers beat up Van Harte.
“They used their fists, kicked him and the army guys used their rifles to hit him,” Lottering says. She tried to help her fiancé, but a fourth soldier threatened her, telling her not to “fuck with him”. The couple’s four-year-old daughter witnessed the attack. She watched from upstairs as her father was beaten and her mother intimidated.
The beating apparently ended with Van Harte being struck on the head with an SANDF helmet. He fell unconscious and the soldiers left.
When Van Harte woke up, he was in the Heideveld Community Health Clinic. He fell into unconsciousness again and woke up later at the Groote Schuur Hospital, 13km from Hanover Park. His family had moved him there because the clinic had been overwhelmed with patients.
According to the report completed at the hospital’s trauma unit, Van Harte was “assaulted by physical force”. His injuries include retrograde amnesia, nausea and vomiting, and pain in his neck, right hand and right shoulder. He also had bruises on the left side of his face, a swollen and blue left eye and tenderness in his spine.
Under military investigation
The couple has opened a case with the SAPS in the Cape Town township of Philippi, to be referred to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. In the case with the military police, military investigators have taken their statement, which New Frame has seen. If there is strong enough evidence against any member of the SANDF, the military’s prosecution unit will take the case to military court.
The couple had initially celebrated the arrival of the SANDF in their neighbourhood, hoping that shooting by gangsters in the area would stop. But the shooting has continued; even Police Minister Bheki Cele has said crime rates have not dropped sufficiently in gang hotspots since the deployment.
“We acknowledge that crime is stabilising, however we would have loved to see the figures dropping even further, with concerted effort we are working towards reducing the figures even further,” Cele said in a recent statement.
According to Cele, since the operation began 1 004 suspects have been arrested for crimes including murder, attempted murder, armed robberies and hijackings. Twenty gang members have also been charged with contravening the Prevention of Organised Crime Act. Their cases are now before the Western Cape High Court.
But, the killings continue. In the second weekend of August, 47 deaths were recorded. SANDF spokesperson Brigadier-general Mafi Mgobozi says the operation is in the hands of the police.
“I know people, when they say the SANDF is being deployed, people have got too much expectation. One thing people must understand is the defence force is there to support the police … If the police say they want the soldiers in Mitchell’s Plain, our soldiers will go there,” Mgobozi says.
Justice for residents?
Van Harte is a quiet man. But around his home, he is well-known. He waves to passersby familiarly and even knows where one elderly blind mind goes for his afternoon beer. In Hanover Park, there is a closeness among neighbours. Van Harte lives behind a main avenue in the area and opposite a council-owned flat where gangsters often stay.
Even the friendliness between neighbours can’t offer much comfort from the shooting, however. His family has been on the housing waiting list for years and he and Lottering currently live in the backyard of her mother’s home as they wait for a piece of land they can call their own. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” he says.
Activists, such as Henriette Abrahams in Bonteheuwel and the Bishop Lavis Action Committee in the Cape Town suburb of Bishop Lavis, have long argued that poverty, inequality and unemployment are drivers of gang formation and violence. They have been vociferous against the deployment of the SANDF in the area.
Mgobozi has heard rumours of more assaults in Cape Town by the SANDF. He encourages people to come forward and “be brave” as Lottering and Van Harte have been so that each allegation can be investigated. If a soldier is found guilty of serious misconduct, they will be sent to military detention and may even be discharged, says Mgobozi.
For a while, Lottering and Van Harte had hoped that the soldiers would help them feel safer. But now, they want them gone.
“I was very happy because the shooting here is terrible. But now they come and beat me up for nothing,” Van Harte says.