Hopefield: Brutal police vs brutalised citizens

The small town’s residents, who say they’ve been terrorised by rogue police officers for years, were unsurprised when Reginald Linnerd was found beaten to death in a holding cell.

It’s easy to drive past Hopefield without noticing it. The oldest town on the Cape West Coast, it has become nothing more than a small settlement since the R27 road was built between Vredenburg and Malmesbury. It fades into the dull shrubbery typical of the landscape here, offering residents none of the sea views suggested by the name of the district, Saldanha Bay. 

Neither is it a hopeful place. The industrial Saldanha Bay Local Municipality lies in the proverbial shadow of the rusty towers of the Saldanha Steel plant, owned by ArcelorMittal South Africa, once the town’s biggest employer but now in maintenance and care. Its emissions resulted in beautiful sunsets but ashen days and a filthy horizon.

Many of Hopefield’s fewer than 6 500 residents are unemployed. Those who do have work mostly labour in construction or manufacturing. In the central business district there is a high school, primary school, court building, police station, corner shop, Spar, liquor store, day clinic and three churches. 

The biggest residential area is the semi-informal Hopefield West, which lies in the north towards Vredenburg and on the “other side” of the main road, past the industrial section marked by Turnerland Manufacturing. This is where all the victims in this story reside.

The death of Reginald Linnerd

Reginald Linnerd’s family was informed of his death on 17 November 2019. Anna Linnerd, his aunt, remembers she and her husband had already gone to bed when they got a call from family members saying the station commander had visited them with the news of the 34-year old’s death. At about 9pm that Sunday evening, they got dressed again to go to the police station. 

When they got there, she says, station commander Captain Gottlieb Adams told her: “Aunty Anna, I did my job. I called forensics and Ipid [Independent Police Investigative Directorate] and I’m not gonna deal with the case.” 

Related article:

She says Adams told her that his officers had called him at about 6pm to say that Linnerd wasn’t breathing. Adams found him lying face down in a pool of blood on the concrete cell floor with several wounds to his head. He had been picked up by the police that morning.

Linnerd was tortured to death in handcuffs, according to a forensic report cited by magistrate Henry Brown in the local court two weeks later. “He was assaulted everywhere. On the front and back of his body, his legs and his head. There isn’t a place where the deceased wasn’t hit.”

Even though Adams warned her of the state in which he had found Linnerd, Anna was not prepared for what she saw at the mortuary. “They asked who was strong enough to see him and I offered,” the family matriarch said.“They were bandaging his head because the blood was still pouring out.

“He got very, very hurt,” she whispered during an interview at her employer’s house in Langebaan, where she works as a domestic cleaner and stays during the week.  “His body looked like a piece of rotten meat, as if his arms and legs were hit with something sharp. His ribs,” she paused to demonstrate, “the one was flattened and the other one stuck out. His testicles were inflated and blue as if kicked over and over.

“He was naughty but no one deserves to die that way. He had his whole life ahead of him,” Anna said of her nephew. He had no wife or children of his own, but he was overprotective of his sister’s young son.“He was always so worried about that child, berating his sister. He was like a father to him. Who’s going to take care of him now?”

A history of violence 

Anna says it was not the first time Linnerd had been assaulted by police officers. Earlier that week he had said to his housemates – his cousins – that if he ever disappeared they should assume the police had killed him. Once, after a celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, he came to Anna for Mercurochrome to treat his bleeding, swollen mouth; on another occasion his arm hung limp and he struggled to walk. He blamed the police.

Ipid spokesperson Sontaga Seisa confirmed that two officers, sergeants Nigel Sifile and Theron Phatisiwe, were arrested and charged with murder and defeating the ends of justice following the incident. The charges were changed to culpable homicide during their first court appearance on 21 November and their bail applications denied. 

However, during the lockdown period, the men’s counsel successfully approached the Western Cape high court for bail for both of them. This was before they were due to appear in a different case of assault to commit grievous bodily harm brought by another Hopefield man.

30 July 2020: Eben Cleophas was assaulted by four police officers in 2016.
30 July 2020: Eben Cleophas was assaulted by four police officers in 2016.

Hopefield resident Eben Cleophas says Linnerd’s death shocked no one in the town. “That’s what had to happen before people would see what’s going on,” said the 38-year-old mason. “Because no one died, nothing happened. They’ve been covering it all up for years.”

Cleophas testified in the Vredenburg magistrate’s court in January about the day, more than three-and-a-half years earlier, he had resisted arrest in Hopefield after being accused of stealing a packet of meat from a neighbour. He has been waiting for these same officers to be taken to task all this time.

A local surgeon, Riaan Swart, took photographs and detailed notes of Cleophas’ injuries, which became evidence in the case against Sifile, Phatisiwe and six other officers. Among other things, he had broken ribs and couldn’t work as a mason for three months.

Pepper spray and blows

Cleophas, who lives in a converted garage littered with his three children’s toys, says he was walking home on 28 December 2016 with a packet of meat that a neighbour had given him. It was about 9pm when a police van stopped next to him. Four officers got out and told him to get into the vehicle, but he refused until he felt his eyes stinging as pepper spray filled the air. 

At the police station, Cleophas says, he was told to hold his hands above his head and stand with his face against the wall. More police officers entered the room. He was instructed not to look around. And then the blows came.

Related article:

“One man held my hands behind my back and a woman gave me a hard blow in my side with a police bat. It went on for what felt like an hour. They hit me everywhere with those bats – on the back of my head and down my body. Then they told me to lie on my stomach and they hit me again. Someone walked over my back, I’m not sure who, and they kicked me.” But it wasn’t over.

“When they were done they told me to jump up into the air 20 times to see if I could touch the ceiling, but I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Cleophas. “I started crying, begging for them to leave me alone, but they wouldn’t.”

Eventually he was taken to the same holding cells where Linnerd would die three years later. The next morning, he says, he was brought a bucket of water to wash the blood from his T-shirt. “There was a lot of blood. My body hurt and I couldn’t walk properly. My ribs hurt the most. My head was swollen.” He was dropped off in town with a warning: “They said if they ever find me walking around again they’ll hit me again.”

On 16 January this year, Sifile and Phatisiwe appeared in court in Vredenburg along with six other officers who were working at Hopefield Police Station at the time, many of whom were present on the night of the attack. They have been charged with assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm. The trial was supposed to be heard in June but was postponed again.

Another terrified victim 

Wilfred Papier says he suffered humiliation, seemingly just for the entertainment of the police officers involved, one night in 2016. His was one of the first cases opened against one of Linnerd’s alleged killers. Exhausted after a long, hot day out working in the sun, the 38-year-old collapsed on a couch in the living room of a friend’s house to be interviewed. 

“I still can’t breathe deeply. I can’t really do physical work because my chest hurts too much when I inhale deeply,” he said.

Papier admits that a fight with his wife prompted a neighbour to alert the police, but by the time two police vans stopped at his house, he says, they had made peace. The couple has three children.

Papier co-operated and got into the back of one of the vans, expecting to be taken to the station. But, to his surprise, the van was driven away from the station, turning left at the crossing that would have taken him into town and instead exiting it. The van continued on the R45 towards Malmesbury, entering Hopefield from the south again and heading away from the town centre on a gravel road near the shooting range.

“When they opened the van, they pulled my T-shirt over my head and they started hitting me. Eventually I started screaming but they didn’t stop. Then I could hear one of the officers getting into the van, getting out and shutting the vehicle’s door. I heard him come closer and then suddenly I received a sharp blow to the side.” 

Related article:

It knocked him out, Papier says, and he is convinced that the weapon was a rifle sawed in half. “I fell down, losing consciousness for a moment, and then quickly crawled under the van. But they dragged me out.” 

What followed still makes no sense to him. “Now, run after the van until we reach the main road,” Papier said he was told. “So they started driving and I tried to run after them, but I was in so much pain, so much… What else could I do? When we got to the main road they picked me up again, and I thought they would take me to the police station. But they dropped me off in town with a warning to stay away from the station unless I want to be assaulted again.”

Papier says he was in too much pain to walk home and passed out behind a shop. A week later he opened a case. Detectives took his statement and “some years later” he received a letter stating that the attorneys who had been dealing with all the assault allegations, Erwee Prokureurs, had withdrawn from his case.

Beating up a woman

Unemployed and unattached, Sylvia Jansen can often be found by the corner shop, chatting to the people resting or waiting for transport in the shade. She and her young child live with her parents. 

Jansen is proud of being a busybody. “When people want to know about something that’s going on, they come to me. They know I talk to everyone,” she said. And that’s why, she says, on the morning of Linnerd’s death, Sifile showed her a photograph of Linnerd posing against a white wall, a stick-like object poking out of his backpack. The sergeant asked her if she thought it was a firearm, but she wasn’t sure.

She has her own story of police brutality dating back to two years before his death. It was in October 2017 that she was picked up by Sifile and Pathisiwe in a blue van at night. “At first I thought they were taking me back home because they knew where my parents were staying,” she said, still not sure what linked her to an illegal firearm which the officers were trying to locate. 

30 July 2020: Two years before Reginald Linnerd was beaten to death in his cell, Sylvia Jansen was assaulted by two officers.

Jansen says Pathisiwe slapped her in the face the first time while she was in the van. She got scared as he and Sifile drove to the outskirts of town with her, all the way to the graveyard. “They said I sleep around, that I sleep with all the men and that I sleep with them for biscuits or food. It was really embarrassing so I kept quiet. I got very scared. They told me: ‘If we find you here we’ll kill you.’” 

Back at the station, Sifile unlocked the door and Pathisiwe started hitting Jansen again, while they were still outside. She says another man who was picked up after her also received fist punches from Pathisiwe. According to Jansen, he then went into the back of the station and came back with a thick rod, “something made of bamboo”, a leather belt and an empty Stoney glass bottle. She was pushed into a corner and assaulted with all three objects. 

Three officers, including Sifile, watched as Pathisiwe aimed blows at her head, she says. “I told Nigel that if Pathisiwe hits me one more time something’s going to happen to me, I’m not going to make it. I can’t take that many hits to the head, I have a head problem, but he laughed at me. I thought I was going to die when those blows kept coming to my head,” she said.

When the beating stopped, Jansen thought she was losing consciousness. “You’re not gonna fuck off home now, you’re gonna sleep with the man we just lekker moered [gave a proper beating],” an officer allegedly said to her. “I insisted on going home and I walked all the way. They followed me in the van, laughing at me all the way home,” Jansen said. The next day, she woke with a swollen blue eye and pain in her left breast.

She tried to press charges twice after the incident. She made a statement and the station commander called her and the two officers into a room behind the station, where he verbally reprimanded them. She never received a case number.

Where to place the blame

Along with Linnerd and Cleophas’ cases, Ipid is also investigating charges of assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm that were laid against Sifile and Phatisiwe after two incidents in July 2018 and January 2019. Ipid says these investigations are “at an advanced stage” and only awaiting a decision from the director of public prosecutions on whether to prosecute or not.

Ipid’s focus on securing convictions might not be the most effective way of holding police officers accountable for brutalising civilians, argues independent researcher David Bruce in a report for the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum that was published in January. Unfortunately, few Ipid investigations lead to criminal convictions for police brutality and even fewer for torture or use of excessive force.

Related article:

Even though Ipid could have compiled a dossier about the two “problem officers” and brought it to the attention of the Western Cape’s police commissioner, Bruce says in reality police brutality is not the directorate’s problem but that of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

“What seems to happen in the majority of cases is that the discussion about the response of police brutality ends up being a discussion about Ipid and its limitations. The SAPS cannot pretend that it is unaware that there are officers in this town who have been repeatedly linked to the most extreme cases of police brutality,” Bruce said. 

“The station commander must be aware of it and there should be awareness about it on a high level at the provincial office. Trying to shift the conversation insofar as we talk about this as a problem of Ipid, we’re not talking about the real problem. SAPS has a chronic problem of police brutality and it’s passed the buck to Ipid. It uses the existence of Ipid as an excuse for not addressing this.” 

Justice delayed

In the meantime, Sifile and Phatisiwe have been reunited with their families. Western Cape police spokesperson Sgt Noloyiso Rwexana says they have not been back on duty since their release. “An internal disciplinary process that is a process between employer and employee is under way,” she said.

Bruce says the station commander should dismiss them irrespective of whether they are prosecuted by the National Prosecuting Authority and convicted. 

“Where there are repeated allegations, this generally indicates that these individuals are associated with problematic behaviour. This isn’t a once-off – these people have repeatedly been linked to allegations that show a consistent pattern and that suggests they [their alleged victims] are worth being taken very seriously.” 

Earlier this year, Erwee Prokureurs submitted more than 30 civil claims against the police minister relating to incidents of alleged police assault in Hopefield, dating back to 2009. Sifile and Phatisiwe will soon be back in court for Linnerd’s death. But between April 2012 and March 2019, only 0.4% of 1 686 Ipid investigations into deaths in police custody resulted in convictions.

 According to the SAPS’ annual crime statistics for 2018-19, one murder was committed in Hopefield during that time. Five sexual offences (rapes) were recorded, as well as one attempted murder and 12 assaults with intent to commit grievous bodily harm. One common robbery and four robberies with aggravated circumstances were listed. No vehicles or motorcycles were reported stolen, and in the category “crime detected as a result of police action” two instances of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition were recorded.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.