Residents of Hillbrow stood on their balconies jeering as police cars – some unmarked – sped through the streets, sometimes turning the wrong way up one-way streets, tyres squealing and sirens blaring.
Police officers weren’t chasing would-be robbers. It was a show of force, an attempt to intimidate those who defied lockdown regulations as the country tries to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Police were accompanied by a motley crew of private security – young men wearing Bad Boyz reflection jackets were piled onto the back of a bakkie, while guards from other security companies carried assault weapons. One man wearing combat fatigues and a range of other “bad guy” accessories was like a caricature of an action movie character.
On the first Monday of the lockdown, as South Africans still came to grips with the restrictions on their movement, police officers complained of the unwillingness of many residents to abide by lockdown regulations.
One soldier remarked last week how difficult it was to send people into their homes. As he was clearing the street ahead of him, barking orders and chasing people inside, others moved freely into the street behind him again.
Communities such as Hillbrow and its surrounds have seen residents fail to keep to the lockdown, with police and other law enforcement officers taking an aggressive approach to force residents inside their homes.
At times the speeding cars would come to a screeching halt. Officers wearing medical or industrial safety masks would jump out vehicles, chasing people home with their shotguns at the ready. Private security guards ran after people with sjamboks.
Between these stops, they would drive through the streets, shotguns hanging out of windows, firing rubber bullets at anyone in the street. One man who had been standing on a street corner fell to the ground, face twisted.
The police officers put on a show, hoping to strike fear into those who ventured outside. But many of those being shot at had no warning. Some were carrying shopping bags while they scrambled for cover. The police officers didn’t shout before shooting, as stipulated in South African Police Service (SAPS) regulations.
They just let loose on the people on the street.
Later in the day, officers came to a stop outside the Down Town Cafe in Bok Street in Hillbrow, knocking fiercely on the roller door. The sirens were still blaring. Passersby were afraid to stop and see what was happening, but some were unable to contain their curiosity.
As the roller door opened, a group of police officers forced their way in. They found three men inside. The men claimed the cafe wasn’t operating and that they were merely living there. The sign outside read “Lodging and Accommodation”.
But the police weren’t interested in their pleas. They had been issued with clear instructions to arrest people who didn’t comply with the lockdown regulations. They detained one man, leading him to a waiting police car.
As the man was still pleading his innocence, the police officer told him: “If you’ve got a problem, Lagos,” he said, pointing his finger in a random direction, “go try your luck there.”
Cases against the police
A week into the 21-day national lockdown and stories have started emerging of police and military abuse as they try to enforce the rules. Many of the communities where these abuses are taking place are impoverished, high-density areas where the scars of state-sanctioned violence under apartheid are still fresh.
Since the lockdown started, there have been at least three incidents of people being killed by the police, military or other law enforcement. There has been some confusion about the number of people who have died at the hands of law enforcement since the lockdown began. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) issued a statement saying six people had died but some media reports claim the number is closer to eight.
Writing for Viewfinder, journalist Daneel Knoetze wrote that Ipid’s numbers for incidents of police wrongdoing during the lockdown were in line with prior trends. “Between April 2012 and March last year, Ipid registered an average of 17 new cases per day. In the three days following the lockdown, Ipid registered a total of 21 new cases. Perhaps this is an indicator that reporting is more difficult during lockdown.
“By comparison, over the same three days in 2018 (the most recent year for which we could access complete data), Ipid registered 67 new cases, including 46 cases of ‘torture or assault’, three related to ‘death as a result of police action’ and one ‘rape by a police officer’,” he wrote.
Petrus “Pietman” Miggels, 55, was one of the first people to die as the police and army enforced the lockdown. Miggels, who lived in Uitsig, east of Cape Town, volunteered to buy some beers for his neighbours.
His girlfriend of nearly two decades, Cecilia Meintjies, 57, said the police “caught him” as he was on his way back.
“He left and went to buy the two beers. On his way back, the police caught him then. They asked him where he got the beer, but he didn’t want to tell them,” Meintjies said.
“The police stuffed him into the van … They beat him there. When he came home he was shaking and shaking. I asked if he was ‘oraait’ and he just said, ‘Hmmm,’” she explained.
Miggels later collapsed in their yard and died in front of his grandchildren.
“When I touched him, his one eye was open. I thought he was in a coma,” she said, still thinking he was going to be fine.
“It happened at my house, in front of the door,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Meintjies said she didn’t understand why Miggels had to be beaten. She insisted the police officers could have taken the alcohol from him, warned him that he was transgressing and given him a fine.
“Dis mos nie nodig om hom te slaan nie [It isn’t necessary to hit him],” she said.
Neither Meintjies nor Miggels had permanent employment, with the couple relying on his Unemployment Insurance Fund benefit which was around R2 000 per month.
“I don’t know how I’m going to survive,” Meintjies said.
The second person to be killed was Sbusiso Amos, 40, in Vosloorus, south-east of Johannesburg. He was shot by a security guard who followed him home after Amos and a few others had been found drinking at a local tavern.
Ipid’s Sontaga Seisa said law enforcement noticed people drinking at the tavern and tried to disperse them. “It is alleged that officers tried to effect the arrest, [while] some people together with some community members attacked them,” he said.
Seisa said police used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, but that Amos was followed to his home. As he entered his home, he stepped onto the veranda and tried to close the security gate behind him.
Seisa said it was at this point that shots were fired at Amos, and he was killed on his veranda at his house. Two children aged five and six as well as two 11-year-old twins were injured during the attack on Amos and were taken to a nearby hospital.
Amos’s cousin, Ntombikanyise Amos, said the family was struggling to arrange the funeral. “Even simple things like buying flowers for the coffin is incredibly difficult under the lockdown,” she said. “We’ve been very busy trying to arrange the funeral and get everything ready that we haven’t really had time to think about the impact his death has on us. We will start to deal with the feelings and emotions after the funeral.”
Amos was buried on 7 April 2020.
Two people, including an Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department officer and a private security guard, were arrested for Amos’s murder. The private security guard appeared in court last week, where he was charged with seven counts, including murder and attempted murder. He’ll be back in court in April to apply for bail.
Brutality and wrongdoing
Gareth Newham, head of the justice and violence prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said he wasn’t surprised to see cases of police wrongdoing during the lockdown.
“The problem of police brutality is an endemic one. It’s been a clear flaw in our policing for a very long time. It’s not anything new. I think Marikana has been a very clear example in our democracy. If policing goes wrong, people can die,” he said. The Marikana massacre took place on 16 August 2012, when the South African Police Service opened fire on striking mineworkers, killing 34 and injuring 78 at the Marikana mine.
“It also reveals another problem which has not been addressed. The complete failure of leadership that led to Marikana has not been addressed.”
Newham said “only a small fraction” would be held accountable based on the data from previous years. “On the conduct side, we’ve seen a collapse of the police’s internal discipline system,” he said.
The SAPS conducts about a third of the number of internal discipline hearings compared to five or six years ago, with the most common outcome being no action taken against an officer.
“Most police officers across the country know that it does not matter how they behave, how corrupt they are [or] how brutal they are, they [will] not be held accountable. That does not mean most police officers are corrupt and badly behaved. Most are not that bad,” he said.
Newham said shooting out of car windows was certainly not allowed. “That’s illegal. What they were doing is illegal, you can’t just drive around with your shotgun out the window shooting rubber bullets at people. According to their own regulations and the law, you can only fire rubber bullets at specific people under the command of a supervisor,” he said.
“Once you have identified somebody who has refused to listen to an instruction, continues to pose a threat to public order because you have clearly identified yourself as a police officer and you have clearly identified the law that they are breaking and you clearly explained to them the consequences of not complying to a legal instruction, only then, if they continue to disobey the instruction under the instruction of a supervisor can you fire rubber bullets at a specific person.”
Wayne Ncube, acting deputy director and the manager of the strategic litigation programme for Lawyers for Human Rights, said: “The manner of enforcement of the regulations specifically in less affluent areas has been distressing but also in line with the heavy-handed nature of policing in these communities with little regard for their rights.
“What is particularly disappointing is the failure of the police to consider the context of these communities which make social distancing a lot more difficult and where a lot of people would only have been paid and got time off work after the regulations came into effect,” he said.
The police response
During a visit to Mahiking in the North West last week, police minister Bheki Cele told reporters: “All these cases you are raising are being investigated by the Ipid. We are making a call to our forces to be compassionate, as they can to respect as they can. But we are also making the call to the nation to understand, respect the law and we all work together.”
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said SAPS management was very concerned about the reported incidents of police wrongdoing.
“We have impressed upon our members on the ground to act within the confines of the law when enforcing the Disaster Management Act regulations,” he said. “The regulations clearly outline the actions security forces may enforce or impose on alleged transgressors.”
Naidoo insisted that there were special conditions under which police officers were permitted to shoot rubber bullets from within a car. However, he rejected claims that police officers were carrying sjamboks and said it was illegal to do so.
“All deployed SAPS members should be wearing police uniform. Any other person or persons as described are simply criminals and must and will be treated as such. We don’t have special members deployed as such and carrying sjamboks,” Naidoo said.
But last week men wearing plainclothes with official-looking police bulletproof vests were seen carrying sjamboks as they accompanied military personnel and private security guards in the Johannesburg CBD.
These men accompanied other law enforcement officers as they shouted instructions at people queuing outside shopping centres in the city and chased people on the street.
Naidoo said the SAPS were focused on the “important goal” of working together in the fight against Covid-19 and that the police didn’t “want to arrest people”. But shopkeepers in Mayfair and Fordsburg had different experiences of the police during the first week of the lockdown.
Looking for bribes
Amir Sheikh, the chairperson of the Somali Community Board, claimed the usually bustling 8th Avenue in Mayfair had been quiet but for the few police officers who intimidated and tried to solicit bribes from shopkeepers who were still operating supermarkets in the area.
“They came to close everything. As long as you are a foreigner and as long as your face betrays you, the police will come and close your shop,” he said.
Sheikh said a number of shopkeepers had permission to operate their supermarkets, but were still receiving mixed messages from police officers. One police van would arrive with police officers telling the shopkeepers everything is in order, and then the next would arrive threatening them or seeking bribes.
Mohammed Jamma, who had a permit to operate his supermarket, Sahan Trading, during the lockdown, said he was confused by police officers.
“The police are difficult. One says you can stay open, and another says, ‘You are not South African, why are you open? If you don’t close we will arrest you.’” Jamma said.
He said some police officers had tried to solicit bribes from him, but Jamma said he would rather close his supermarket than pay a bribe – something many of his peers in 8th Avenue weren’t able to do.
Jamma and the group of men who started congregating around him while he spoke all claimed the shopkeepers in the street had police officers ask them for bribes. Sheikh said the allegations against police officers trying to extract bribes from shopkeepers in Mayfair was nothing new.
Additional reporting by Barry Christianson and James Oatway.