Jasper Mahlangu* will never forget Sunday 29 March 2020. It was the first weekend of South Africa’s lockdown, which had started three days earlier. The 46-year-old, who daily takes more than 20 pills for tuberculosis, swelling and other chronic ailments, was feeling dizzy and weak after taking his medication.
A group of police and traffic officers found him walking in a street in Thokozani village, near the town of Amsterdam in the eastern part of Mpumalanga. They got out of the car and asked Mahlangu: “What did we say? Didn’t the government say everyone must stay at home?”
Despite not having contravened the lockdown regulations, he says the law enforcers beat him with wire cables. “I cried and apologised, but they would not stop beating me up. I could not run away because I was sick,” recalled Mahlangu, who was left with severe bruising. After the assault he dragged himself home, where over the course of two days he felt the pain getting worse. However, he did not have enough money to consult a doctor.
On 31 March, he finally decided to use his last cash to seek medical assistance. By this time, he says, his one knee was so severely swollen that he could not walk. “The doctor sucked the blood out and it was only then that I managed to walk. To go to the doctor, I borrowed R400 from a mashonisa [money lender] to hire someone for transport, and the doctor charged me about R700,” Mahlangu said.
According to a medical report seen by New Frame, Mahlangu’s body was bruised in several places, including his head, chest, neck, wrist, ear and thighs, and it still bears dark marks today. Mahlangu says when it is cold the pain in his knee becomes more severe, and it also hurts when he unwittingly bends it while asleep.
Fear and frustration
Initially, Mahlangu did not want to open a case against the four officers who had assaulted him, for fear of heavy reprisals. All he wanted was for them to pay his medical expenses as well as the costs he had incurred for transport to get to the doctor. But this has not happened and now he is contemplating laying a charge against his assailants, even though he is scared.
“When I tried to talk to them, one of the police officers who had beat me up said they know that I live alone in my house. He threatened me and said they will find me and open a case against me,” Mahlangu said. “These people harassed me a lot. I would appreciate it if the law takes its course because when I talk to them they do not listen.”
The acting commander of Amsterdam Police Station, Warrant Officer Jacques Diedericks, told New Frame he was not aware that the police had assaulted Mahlangu. However, Mahlangu says after he was beaten he went to talk to the station commander, Captain Nkosinathi Shange, who was on leave when New Frame conducted interviews.
Mahlangu is not the only village resident whom law enforcers attacked physically. Videos of officers assaulting and verbally harassing people in a spaza shop have been circulating on social media. “Hey, voetsek wena, ufunani la [what are you doing here]? Shit. Fuck!” These words from an officer can be heard in the video while another officer kicks them in the buttocks. “Nike nibuye la, nizonya [If you dare come back, the shit will hit the fan]!”
When New Frame enquired about the conduct of the officers, Diedericks responded: “With the video story, we know about that. The police officers involved were called in and Captain Shange confronted, cornered and talked to them. The people from internal investigation in the police also interviewed them and some of them were communicated with.”
Asked whether he condoned officers assaulting residents while claiming to enforce lockdown regulations, Diedericks said: “That was not right… The police have got a lot of frustrations and the communities are not listening to the rules and regulations. We must enforce them, but how many times must we give the same explanation? What do you do to a child that does not listen – you are going to end up being fed up. I think the actions of the police officers were more out of frustration [about repeatedly calling in at the spaza shop to warn people to stay home] than wanting to injure anybody.”
Beatings par for the course
Zanele Mazibuko* also experienced how the police made the lives of residents unbearable during the early stages of the lockdown. “The police officers were beating everyone they found in the streets,” said the 30-year-old. “They said the lockdown must finish before we’d be allowed to be in the streets.”
She recalls an afternoon during which she was about to take a taxi to town when the police, carrying sjamboks, stopped the vehicle. Without any attempt to find out whether she was going to buy groceries or seek medical attention, which the lockdown regulations allowed, two officers tried to assault her.
She says she ran for her life. “I had a bunch of thorns in my clothes. I didn’t even notice that I was running on thorns – the only thing I cared about was saving my life,” Mazibuko recalled.
When she arrived in town, Mazibuko says, she tried to buy a few items at a filling station, Amsterdam Motors. “The staff refused for me to buy because they were scared that the police would beat me up. I don’t know why the police would refuse for us to buy as even during the hard lockdown there were times people were permitted to be on the streets. But to be honest, the police were disrespecting and abusing us. They made us suffer quite a lot.”
She added: “The cops that were operating during lockdown must be disciplined or fired because they can’t continue treating people like this. What they did was quite horrible.”
The South African Police Service spokesperson in Mpumalanga, Brigadier Leonard Hlathi, told New Frame: “Members must behave themselves correctly and must uphold the law. There’s a code of conduct that we need to treat people well; it was said by the minister and the president. But in terms of dealing with lockdown, we must enforce the law and not create enemies with the community or fight with the community. Such incidents are not condoned – that’s why there’s a national complaint centre. If people feel like they’re wrongly treated by the police they can complain and report there.”
Trigger-happy police officers
On 17 February, residents in Amsterdam came together to block a road with burning tyres because they were fed up with the Mkhondo Local Municipality switching off their electricity for almost 10 hours at a time. As the residents demanded answers and accountability from their councillors, the police intervened and allegedly fired live ammunition at two pupils from Nganana Secondary School. These teenagers have not received any form of justice and were so intimidated by the police that they are now too scared to talk about their injuries and what happened after they were shot.
Another resident of the area who also found himself being injured is Kwanele Khumalo, 24, who lives with his grandmother in KwaThandeka, in Amsterdam. He says he was among people who had gathered in one of the village’s streets to find out whether there had been progress with regard to the electricity issue. A decision was made to send some taxi drivers to the police station to enquire there. But while waiting for the drivers to return, he says, “the police came and randomly shot at us with small round bullets”.
“The bullet entered inside my skin and damaged a part of my lung,” said Khumalo. After he was shot, he went to the clinic where an ambulance was called. However, he could not get help at Piet Retief Hospital in eMkhondo as all the beds were full. “We sat on the benches,” he said. “At home they said I must come back so that they could take me to a doctor. The doctor saw the wound and said he can’t do an operation because if he does it will cause more damage. The bullet is still inside my lung and sometimes I can feel it moving. At other times my lung would be painful and I’d struggle to breathe.”
Khumalo did not recognise the officer who shot him because, he says, “they had covered their faces with masks”. This means the chances of ever getting justice are slim, if not impossible.
*Names have been changed.