State brutality sows fear in housebound citizens

Brutal beatings at the hands of the police and military – and arrests for documenting these assaults – have left some residents living in fear of the state during the Covid-19 lockdown.

A loaf of bread and a bottle of Coke. Those were the items Tumelo* set out to get from a spaza shop near his home in Sebokeng in southern Gauteng. Instead, what he got was a violent beating from members of the South African Corps of Military Police, who have been accompanying the police and army on their patrols during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The brutalising encounter has left him physically injured and mentally traumatised. And the unchecked violence of the authorities has instilled fear and distrust of the police and army in those living in the area. 

Inside the small shack he shares with his mother, 23-year-old Tumelo is seated next to family members and community leaders as he shares his story. The hood of his top is drawn over his head, blocking out the world. When he speaks, his words are barely audible. His usual fast-talking and jovial nature have left him. He winces in pain as he shifts his position on the couch. Little white plastic packets filled with pain medication are scattered over the kitchen table.

It was late morning on 7 April when Tumelo’s mother sent him to the spaza shop. Tumelo was walking back home through the dusty streets of Sebokeng when he saw the snaking convoy of police and military vehicles approaching. “There was a police car right in front and the policeman inside told us we better run,” says Tumelo. And so he ran, but he didn’t get far and was soon set upon by members of the military police, who wrestled him to the ground and beat him viciously. 

A young woman filmed Tumelo running down the street, trying to evade the authorities, on her cellphone from her yard. In the video, Tumelo is seen desperately trying to get away from the officers. He has some space to run into but is blocked by a military ambulance, which veers into his path. A female officer jumps out and Tumelo runs around the ambulance. He zigs and zags but is eventually surrounded by at least three members of the military police. Tumelo is flung to the ground where military police officers can be seen kicking him violently as he lies on his back and tries to protect his head. 

One officer takes a final swipe, aiming a kick at the back of Tumelo’s head. In an act that can only be described as cowardly, his heavy boot smashes into the back of Tumelo’s head with such ferocity that his entire body jerks forward. “What the fuck?” the woman in the video can be heard saying as the encounter comes to an end and Tumelo is left lying dazed and confused in the street. 

The video was shared among residents and quickly made it on to the larger social media networks, where it went viral. It wasn’t long before the police and army became aware of the video and the convoy of vehicles returned to the street, this time in search of the resident who had filmed the incident. They arrested the two women, the home owner and her friend. The owner’s three-year-old toddler had to be left in the care of a neighbour as his mother was bundled into a police car and taken away.

Residents descended on the Sebokeng police station to demand the release of the two women. But the police stonewalled them, refusing to let the women go. Community leader Nicholas Tshabalala* says the police indicated that they were charging the women for contravening the Disaster Management Act. They were kept in the police station cells overnight and only released in the early hours of the next morning. They are now both in hiding, fearing for their safety. 

9 April 2020: The medication Tumelo is taking for his injuries from the assault. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
9 April 2020: The medication Tumelo is taking for his injuries from the assault.

Broken trust

The police initially refused to open a case for the abuse Tumelo suffered at the hands of the military police. He was given the runaround and it was only when Tshabalala phoned a higher-ranking colonel the next day that a case was reluctantly opened. “The relationship and the trust between the community and the police at this moment is irretrievably broken. Like a bad marriage,” says Tshabalala.

The Sebokeng police station said the only person authorised to comment on the arrest of the two women and their reluctance to open a case against the military police for the assault on Tumelo was the national police spokesperson. But Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said management at the South African Police Service had taken a decision to stop commenting on individual incidents. 

“I am aware of the incident in Sebokeng. But we have taken a decision not to comment on blow-by-blow police action because this thing is becoming more about police and policing, rather than the bigger evil, which is the virus,” said Naidoo.

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He said he was receiving hundreds of calls a day with regards to incidents involving the police. When pressed about why the two women who filmed the incident from inside their homes were arrested, Naidoo said there is a regulation in the Disaster Management Act that prohibits such actions. “The regulations are clear with regards to filming videos and posting on social media,” said Naidoo.

However, the act only contains regulations that are there to protect the public against the spread of fake news with regards to Covid-19. They make no mention of any offence for filming and posting police or army brutality. 

The regulations state: “Any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about (a) Covid-19; (b) Covid-19 infection status of any person; or (c) any measure taken by the government to address Covid-19, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or both such fine and imprisonment.”

Killed over a beer

Three days after the incident in Sebokeng, late in the afternoon on Friday 10 April, two military personnel entered the Alexandra home of Collins Khoza under the premise of searching for alcohol. According to Khoza’s wife, Nomsa Montsha, members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) dragged him outside after finding a beer in the fridge. 

Khoza remonstrated with the soldiers, telling them that he was inside his home and not drinking in public. Montsha says the soldiers then emptied the beer over Khoza in a humiliating fashion, which resulted in an argument. The two SANDF soldiers then called for backup, which arrived in the form of a minibus packed with soldiers. They immediately started beating Khoza, according to Montsha. 

When Montsha appealed to the soldiers to stop, she received a blow to the head. Witnesses say soldiers forced anyone trying to video the incident to delete their footage. The soldiers left and Khoza retreated to his bed, where he started vomiting and later passed out. Three hours later, Khoza was dead. “He held my hand tight and looked at me, and then I felt his pulse and couldn’t find it,” said Montsha. 

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Provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters confirmed that the police in Alexandra have opened a case of murder. SANDF spokesperson Colonel Louis Kirstein said the military will cooperate with the police investigation and restated that SANDF members are expected to act within the confines of the law. “Any action outside the law will not be condoned,” said Kirstein. 

Back on the streets of Sebokeng, close to where Tumelo was beaten, 22-year-old Sibusiso Radebe* sits in his yard with his gate firmly shut. Radebe also witnessed Tumelo’s beating at the hands of the military police and the incident has left him petrified. “What they did to that guy was really bad. Now, when the police and army drive past my house, my heart just starts beating very fast,” says Radebe. “We are afraid because we are not sure what will kill us first, the coronavirus or the soldiers.”

*Names have been changed and surnames withheld.

9 April 2020: Young boys cycle to the spaza shop in Sebokeng to buy supplies. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
9 April 2020: Young boys cycle to the spaza shop in Sebokeng to buy supplies.
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