The shooter who killed Steven Kau during a land occupation clash couldn’t have known that his killing would inspire those attempting to build shacks on the land to rename the area after him.
Kau was among the group of people wanting to build their homes on a portion of municipal land in Barcelona in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, in January. The land overlooks green fields scattered with pink and white lilies and dandelions.
It wasn’t long before the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department (EMPD) tried to eject the residents, allegedly without producing a court order.
The would-be residents say tensions escalated when metro police officers refused to listen to their requests for a court order. Instead, the police apparently charged through the area to demolish shacks. The shack builders retaliated by hurling stones and rocks at the authorities, who allegedly fired rubber bullets in response.
7 February 2019: A land occupier building a shack at the “Steven Kau” occupation near Barcelona in the East Rand.
Not a rubber bullet
Simon Mashaba, 33, was cowering behind “Stevovo” Kau, who was using a metal door to shield himself from the gunfire.
Mashaba, who witnessed the shooting, says an EMPD officer used live ammunition when he ran out of rubber bullets. One of the bullets that pierced Kau’s body struck Mashaba in the upper chest. He says blood gushed out of the wound with every breath he took.
“I just felt hot here," he says, pointing at his chest. “I knew they had gotten me. Others told me to go to the hospital, I declined until I could feel it was searing me,” he says.
He knew immediately that it was not a rubber bullet and says the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) took his clothes during the course of its investigation.
A member of the group, who did not want to be named, says that when the police officer realised Kau had fallen, he threw his gun into a nearby wetland. A dog from the K9 unit ran, picked up the gun and dropped it next to Kau's body. Another cop allegedly quickly picked up the gun and threw it into a car, while the officer who allegedly fired the live ammunition jumped into the car which spun around and drove off.
The eyewitness says he saw a few EMPD officers burn the metal door Kau had been using as a shield.
‘We still needed him’
Kau did not die immediately, says Mashaba, adding that the ambulance took five hours to arrive.
Members of the group wanted to pick up Kau's body because “he was one of us”, but they say the EMPD surrounded him and only moved when officers from the South African Police Service (SAPS) arrived.
Over a month after his killing, Kau’s mother, Mama Christinha Kau, says she is still finding it difficult to come to terms with the loss of her youngest son.
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“We don’t like what happened, it is painful for us. We still needed him, and he still needed to be with his son … Now he is gone, the son wants his father and the father is no more.
“You know, I don’t even sleep. I stay up at night, I wake up in my sleep and I stay up … I am still not happy niks niks niks [at all]. I am just happy because I am alive,” she says slowly, letting out a heavy sigh.
Speaking exclusively to New Frame at her modest RDP home in Citicon, Ekurhuleni, Mama Kau, 59, says she was washing the dishes around mid-morning on 13 January when she got a call. Her neighbour told her that her 23-year-old son had been shot and had fallen. Another neighbour drove her from Citicon to Barcelona, the site of the land occupation.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I thought maybe he had fainted. When we got there, we realised he was dead," she says, rocking back and forth.
With the firing of those three fatal bullets, Mama Kau lost her middle child and youngest son, leaving her with six children. She says the way she lost Steven hurts her the most, as she thought he would come back home.
“I didn’t expect this at all, because when he left he said he was going to find a home for his son so … they could go and build there … that didn’t come to pass though.”
Alex Kau, 33, is now the youngest son and the grim task of identifying his younger brother's body fell to him. “It was painful for me to go and pick him up on the street, it was very painful,” he says.
7 February 2019: Christinha Kau, Steven Kau’s mother, is finding it difficult to come to terms with the death of her youngest son.
Alex is convinced that his brother's death was not a mistake.
“I left with Steven from the crime scene. I released him from the post-mortem and bathed him at the undertaker's, and that’s when I realised that that was not a mistake.
“Steven was shot three times. He was shot in the eye, neck and one which went through his legs, so we cannot call that a mistake,” he says, questioning if a rubber bullet could cause a body to be that badly bruised and injured.
“I saw the body. He was unsightly,” says Mama Kau, looking down.
Alex says it hurt to see that his brother was still bleeding from the neck while he bathed him before the funeral, which took place on that same Thursday.
Steven Kau was the family’s breadwinner.
“I have lost someone, I don’t work. He would try and buy some food for the house. His brothers are looking for jobs, but they are not getting them. He would try to get us food. Now, today, nothing is coming in, all of that is gone. I am just left like this. Whenever I talk about him, I… ” says Mama Kau tearfully, before her voice breaks.
She weeps quietly, cupping her face in her hands, until the sound of children playing in front of her house eventually drowns out her soft sobs.
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“What we don’t understand is why a real bullet was used instead of a rubber bullet,” says Elizabeth Moremi, rubbing Kau’s back in an attempt to console her. Moremi, 61, and Mama Kau have been neighbours and friends since 1993, before they moved into their RDP houses.
Moremi says this wouldn’t have happened if the construction of adequate housing had been rolled out timeously, pointing out that Alex applied in 2010 and has still not been allocated a house. “They are killing our children's future,” she says.
Mama Kau says her heart hurts and that she is on medication for high blood pressure.
“Whenever I take Grandpa, I feel better. I take it because I am deeply hurt. I am not getting better, I am just forcing myself, nje, because there is nothing else I can do. I wash and my neighbours talk to me and it feels like the hurt goes away for a bit, but I am not fully well. And I will not forget this anytime soon, it's hard.”
She is concerned about her three-year-old grandson, who she says might suffer because his mother is a student.
“Our dilemma is that since Steven’s child is going to grow up without a father, who will take care of him? Steven died trying to secure a bright future for his child. Since he died that way, the government must pick up where he left off,” says Alex Kau.
Kau is being treated for TB and relied on his brother to help him.
“My condition is such that sometimes I am weak or fatigued, and I would give him my card and ask him to go and pick up my medication for me. So when he is gone like this, you can understand that for the family this is a big loss,” he says.
Kau fondly describes his brother as a community builder who worked with the disabled and trained high school students in athletics. When he walked past a school and saw athletes training without his brother, he says, “I realised he is gone. He is gone and he will no longer fill that role.
“We are not the only ones who have lost, the youth here in Ekurhuleni have lost. He would sacrifice his time, he has a son. He would sacrifice for his son, his family, his community. Even the way he died there, the way he died there after 25 years [of freedom],” he says.
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Moremi says Steven Kau was easygoing and respectful.
“He was always laughing, you would hardly see him angry. What a sweet boy. Everyone felt pain, even everyone on this street – there is not a single person who didn’t cry,” she says.
“He would call me Mama, or Ma'ou'lady, when he was happy,” laughs Mama Kau, snapping out of her grief. “He called me sweetheart when he was happy,” Moremi chimes in with a hearty chuckle.
Alex Kau is bitterly disappointed in the government, saying the silence from authorities about his brother’s death shows that they lack compassion.
“It doesn’t even look like someone died there, because there is no action from government … so it hurts more because of that. If they can do this to Steven, who is the next victim?”
City of Ekurhuleni spokesperson Themba Gadebe declined to comment, saying it is an EMPD matter.
“I obviously cannot comment on the death that EMPD cannot account for,” he said.
EMPD media liaison officer Kobeli Mokheseng told New Frame that the metro police responded to reports of a land invasion on the day, but said no live ammunition was fired.
“The crowd enlarged, then our hands were full and we were trying to stop them from building. We called for backup. As they arrived, the group started charging rocks at us, they threw burning tyres at our vehicles and we had to retaliate. The ammunition that we use is rubber at all times,” he said.
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Mokheseng said the matter is under investigation by Ipid and questions should be addressed to the directorate. He said that as soon as the EMPD receives a full report from Ipid, it will begin conducting its own investigation.
“It is not clear at this stage what happened. Ipid and the SAPS were called in and they are conducting investigations and trying to figure out what happened. A case of murder has been registered. It is not clear currently who and how that person sustained fatal injuries. Please, let’s give Ipid a chance,” he said.
Ipid spokesperson Moses Dlamini said the directorate is still investigating a case of murder and attempted murder, but no arrests have been made. The type of ammunition used is subject to investigation, he said.
8 February 2019: Elizabeth Mokoena rests after the metro police demolished shacks at the Steven Kau land occupation on Johannesburg’s East Rand.
‘We need justice’
“I want that in all they do, they must be considerate of other people and not only think for themselves as police. They must think of the future of others,” says Mama Kau.
The family wants closure and a dignified funeral for Steven Kau, who was buried as an indigent.
“We need justice, justice needs to be served. I want the truth about Steven's death, I have to know. I must know,” says Kau insistently.
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