18 April 2024 | 12:19 PM

Torture and the culture of fear in a ‘free’ South Africa

Key Takeaways

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June 26 marked International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, to commemorate the United Nations ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1987. In South Africa this day passed as imperceptibly as the government’s practical implementation of its commitment to end this cruelty.

For more than two years Glebelands Hostel – an apartheid-era relic constructed to provide cheap accommodation for even cheaper migrant labour – has been ground-zero for political assassinations.

As the African National Congress (ANC) implodes, an increasingly lethal struggle for control of power and resources, together with seemingly politically orchestrated ethnic conflict, has engulfed this vast, South Durban housing complex in a wave of violence the police have proved unable or unwilling to address.

Sixty-four people have died – most shot execution-style.

Constant complaints of police involvement in the conflict, the failure to obtain even one murder conviction, and 14 reports of police torture have exposed the rot that has eaten away the independence of South Africa’s criminal justice system and revealed injustice, gross human rights abuses and a return to the repressive practices of the former Apartheid regime.

“The officer put the plastic bag over my head and pulled it tightly from behind. I couldn’t breathe. As soon as he removed the bag, the other policeman replaced it with another. They kept doing this. All the time they were beating me. I was in such pain. I became unconsciousness. I eventually knocked my foot on the floor to get them to stop. I thought I was going die. I would have told them anything they wanted, just to make them stop. That’s when I lied and told them the guns were at my friend’s house.”
(Statement to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) by a relative of Glebelands Hostel resident allegedly tubed by members of the National Intervention Unit in March 2016. He is currently in hiding, as he fears police reprisals.)

Despite officials’ best efforts to blame the Glebelands violence on ‘warring factions’ fight to control the illicit sale of beds, evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of those targeted for criminal or state violence have been members or associates of the hostel’s block committees.

These elected structures were warned shortly before the killing began that their persistent opposition to the continued tenure of discredited local political structures, calls for improved service delivery and allegations of corruption, would be ‘dealt with’.

“Umlazi police beat me for hours and forced me to inhale teargas.”
(A Glebelands man’s testimony to the author after his alleged torture by Umlazi SAPS members in May 2015. He was assassinated in July 2015.)

Although the right not to be tortured has been embedded in our Constitution since 1996, South Africa, one of the original UN signatories, took a further 15 years to pass the Prevention of Combating and Torture of Persons Act in July 2013.

The apartheid regime’s routine use of torture, particularly tubing – suffocation to the point of death with a plastic bag, tyre inner-tube or similar non-porous fabric – has endured and flourishes under South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

However, when the subject is raised in polite conversation, most middle- and upper-class South Africans seem to think torture remains a skeleton, safely locked in apartheid’s closet of horrors. The shocked response is usually: “Does this still happen?”

One is left wondering what rock they are living under. But mankind is seldom keen to recognise its latent inhumanity, especially when only the poor or marginalised are affected.

“They pointed me with firearms. I heard them talking to each other, planning to kill me.” (From a statement to the Umlazi SAPS in March 2014. This Glebelands resident was a witness to an investigation involving torture and, ultimately, a death in custody and subsequently fled KwaZulu-Natal after alleged police harassment.)

The UN describes torture as the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering – whether physical or mental – to obtain information or confession, or used to intimidate, coerce or punish, or as a form of discrimination.

“The bags were transparent, a strong plastic and quite large with a SAPS badge printed in the centre. The officer who took them out of the drawer tried to prevent me seeing them. He counted out four bags, then said: ‘You people must think carefully because you are going to shit here!’”
(From a Glebelands resident’s statement to the IPID and the author describing what appeared to be the use of police evidence bags by Umlazi SAPS members, allegedly to tube a Glebelands man who died under interrogation in March 2014.)

Perpetrators are defined not only as the person directly engaged in torture, but also anyone who instigates or allows it, or commanding officers who may suspect its occurrence, but do nothing, or try to conceal it.

“What should we do with those things?”
“Throw them in the bin before those people arrive.”
(A Glebelands resident’s statement to the IPID. It describes an alleged exchange he witnessed between Umlazi SAPS members regarding the disposal of evidence after the death in custody of an alleged torture victim, before the arrival of IPID investigators in March 2014.)

The contempt with which anti-torture legislation is viewed by most state officials was emphasised during a bail application hearing last year when it was brought to the attention of the Umlazi Magistrate’s Court that the accused had been tortured during his arrest.

At the time, the man’s injuries were obvious to all in court; he could barely walk and appeared severely traumatised. The matter had already been reported to the IPID. A case had been opened against the police and his medical report was shown to the magistrate.

The accused, who claimed the police had tried to kill him, also alleged that some time after his initial torture, the investigating officer threatened further violence to force him to sign an incriminating pre-prepared statement.

The officer concerned, who was present in court, promptly denied all previous contact with the accused, while the prosecutor tried to suppress any reference to torture, suggesting instead that prisoners “often fight in the cells.”

When this failed to convince the magistrate, the prosecutor declared it was “impossible for the police to harm anyone as it is their duty to protect people.”

The magistrate responded that “this man has clearly been badly beaten” and suggested that “our former president, Mr Nelson Mandela, would probably not agree” with the prosecutor’s assertion regarding blameless police conduct.

The subsequent court ruling – that the accused receive specialised medical treatment and that he be placed in solitary confinement to protect him from further police abuse – was ignored.

His right to a fair hearing was obstructed by a combination of a hostile prosecution and an inept, inexperienced legal aid attorney, who seemed more focused on making a fashion statement in court than the defence of her client.

As hearings progressed, the very serious issue of torture and its impact on the victim was progressively smothered by the overwhelming dysfunction of state departments, epitomising poor people’s unequal struggle to access their constitutional rights.

Four months later, after losing his job, his home and his mental health, and suffering long-term physical damage, charges were withdrawn. The same man had been the victim of violent eviction and an attempted assassination in 2014 that had left him partially disabled.

He has never received the psychological support or rehabilitation vital for the transformation of a victim into a torture survivor. A year has since passed and the IPID have yet to act against any of the officers named in the abuse.

The UN defines the systematic use of torture as a crime against humanity. Such a high prevalence of torture at one location suggests the practice is not only widespread, but symptomatic of a self-perpetuating tradition of impunity and increasing violence inherited and perfected to recreate a culture of fear and absolute submission to authority.

The UN website states that “torture seeks to annihilate the victim’s personality and denies their inherent human dignity”.

Research by Cristian Correa, attorney and former secretary of the National Commission of Political Imprisonment and Torture in Chile, found torture was used “to destroy prisoners’ will, dignity and moral, psychological and physical resolve”.

“One officer tried to hold me by my private parts … I said they must rather arrest me.” (Description by a Glebelands resident’ and torture witness of his own abuse, allegedly by Umlazi police officers, in a March 2014 statement to IPID.)

The South African Torture Act’s stated purpose is to promote and protect human rights and dignity. However, Glebelands victims regularly described severe personal humiliation inflicted by members of the SAPS during torture incidents. The emasculating effects of such degrading acts are likely to have devastating social consequences, particularly on profoundly chauvinistic hostel communities.

“They pushed me into the police van … then I noticed Mandla* was naked with his trousers down to his knees.”
(A Glebelands witness’s statement to the IPID in March 2014 describing his arrest by Umlazi SAPS members, prior to the alleged torture and death in custody of his friend.)

“He took the stick and forced it into my eye. I began screaming … he grabbed me by my private parts and said: ‘Oh, you have not peed or shit yourself yet?’”
(Glebelands resident’s statement to the IPID after his alleged torture by Umlazi Cluster Crime Intelligence and other police members in July 2015. The victim is currently in hiding because he fears police reprisals.)

The UN convention compels the investigation of all torture incidents, even in the absence of official complaints; and views the failure to do so as a violation of international law. South African legislation states that perpetrators can receive life sentences and requires government assistance for victims.

However, a year after the Torture Act became law, the number of KwaZulu-Natal torture cases reported in IPID’s 2014/15 annual report leapt by 137%, from 19 to 45 – the highest in the country.

KwaZulu-Natal also recorded the highest levels of death in police custody or from police action, rape and corruption. By comparison, the province was bottom of the class for completed investigations, scoring a miserable 28% (the national average was 48%).

Of the 45 torture complaints recorded in KwaZulu-Natal, only eight investigations – 18% – were finalised.

The IPID is required to make recommendations to the National Prosecuting Authority if evidence of police wrongdoing is found. None of torture cases reported in KwaZulu-Natal have reached that stage.

Nationally, of the 53 investigations concluded from a total of 145 torture complaints, a mere four were referred to the NPA and none resulted in a criminal conviction.

The SAPS internal disciplinary measures against officers accused of torture, rape and murder, are equally depressing. Token punitive gestures usually consist of fines not exceeding R600, or written and verbal warnings for officers found guilty by their peers.

With an annual budget of around R230-million and caseload of 2 234 for the year under review, the IPID managed to secure only 58 criminal convictions, leading to the dismissal of a mere 26 officers.

It can therefore be calculated that it costs taxpayers around R400 000 to convict a cop; nearly R1-million to strike a “rotten apple” from an increasingly sick tree.

“The police took a break from tubing me, but one officer, a woman, returned. I was still bent backwards over the vehicle’s bonnet. She shouted at me, then kicked me repeatedly in my private parts. I couldn’t pee for two days.”
(Glebelands resident’s testimony to the author after Public Order Policing Unit members allegedly tortured him in October 2014.)

International torture victim support organisations cite medical and psychological therapy, justice, redress and reintegration as the most important factors for successful rehabilitation.

Post-traumatic consequences usually extend beyond the initial ordeal and can ruin lives. In addition to physical injuries, long-term effects such as depression, insomnia, concentration and memory lapses, acute anxiety, flashbacks, feelings of hopelessness, loss of self-esteem and trust, and feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal, insecurity and alienation can lead to substance abuse or suicide, and destroy a victim’s interpersonal relationships and ability to function normally.

“I was seated at a table with about ten officers. They accused me of knowing the people who killed Bheka* because they came to my house. They said I wasn’t telling the truth. Then two officers came behind me, one pulled my shoulders back against the chair and the other put plastic over my face. I couldn’t breathe at all – I was afraid of the plastic. Then they put handcuffs on me. When they put the plastic over my face the second time I became dizzy and fell from my chair. I hit my head on the floor… there was blood on the floor. They put me back in the chair and put the plastic over my face twice more. They did this for about two hours then took me to the Umlazi police station. They let me go after two days. I don’t know why they did this to me. I can no longer trust the police.”
(From a statement to an independent forensic pathologist by a Glebelands Hostel resident – a mother of four – who was allegedly tubed by Umlazi SAPS members, October 2014.)

Torture victims are mostly from marginalised, impoverished or disadvantaged communities. A failing public health system and medical practitioners who lack the necessary experience, resources or sensitivity needed to treat this kind of abuse effectively bars the majority from a successful recovery, perpetuating the cycle of injustice. At worst, torture may become a generational trauma.

“My family was very traumatised, especially my youngest son. He now fears the police and worries all the time about my safety. The stress caused him to fail at school last year.”
(Testimony by a 65-year-old Glebelands resident to the author after Metro Police allegedly tortured him in 2014.)

In the broader context, research into Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s indiscriminate use of torture, for the purpose of extinguishing “people’s will to oppose the regime”, revealed that it “destroyed social networks and seriously affected people’s ability to trust each other”.

As George Orwell put it in 1984, torture “imposed fear on society as a whole”.

Apartheid-style torture should have no place in a constitutional democracy, which is emphasised in the preamble to the Torture Act, noting: “South Africa has a shameful history of gross human rights abuses, including the torture of many of its inhabitants”.

Although Amnesty International briefly mentions the prevalence of police torture at Glebelands Hostel in its latest human rights report, generally the public and civil society has maintained a polite silence on the invisible spectre of torture.

Civic silence, combined with deadly political factionalism and efforts by the state to paint all who demand accountability and transparency as “un-African”, agents provocateurs or “subversive foreign-funded enemies of the state” conspires towards the increasingly brutal repression of poor communities.

Simultaneously, the actions of the police – and particularly those of intelligence structures – appear increasingly sadistic and sinister. Operations at Glebelands a month ago were led by an officer wearing a balaclava and conducted in the dead of night by members who had removed their nametags. People were forcibly photographed and the whereabouts of certain residents were sought by police who refused to state their purpose. Commanding officers later denied all knowledge of their members’ unconstitutional actions.

“These police came to my room at about 1am and demanded my firearm. When I explained I don’t own a gun, they ordered me to lie on the floor and to put my hands between my legs. Then they rolled me in a blanket and used a ‘black plastic’ to tube me. One of the officers put his boot on my back and forced my head backwards while they choked me with the plastic. I was so scared because I thought this time they are going to kill me for sure because I couldn’t move at all. Last time they told me if I wanted to say something I must bang my foot. They gave me no chance to move this time, it was like they weren’t really interested in whether I had a gun, they just wanted to torture me.”
(A Glebelands resident’s testimony to the author after allegedly being tubed by unknown SAPS members in May 2016. The same man claimed Umlazi SAPS members also tortured him in July 2014.)

Official SAPS’ response to human rights defenders complaints regarding police torture and other unlawful conduct has been depressingly predictable. In May this year recently suspended KZN Provincial Commissioner, Lieutenant General Mmamonnye Ngobeni stated: “We are disturbed by the wild and unfounded allegations from people who have no clue of what is going on in the Glebelands hostel. Unfortunately their propaganda campaign through the media will only benefit them, not the residents of the hostel.” She further stated, “[c]riticism of the police… [is] ‘unjustified’.”

The IPID is currently still investigating four of the five torture incidents reported. One case was closed, unconcluded, when the victim was assassinated six months after the matter was reported. Since 2014 no officers identified in Glebelands-related torture incidents have been arrested or suspended.

According to IPID, in the matter pertaining to the March 2014 death in custody, the docket and reports [are] with the Directorate of Public Prosecution’s office awaiting a decision.

Twenty-seven months after a man died at the hands of police who contravened universally binding anti-torture legislation, a family still waits for justice.

As declared by the torturer to his victim in Orwell’s 1984: “The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?” DM

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of victims. The names of 12 police members implicated in torture are known. Torture accusations have also been levelled against members of the National Intervention Unit, Public Order Police, the Tactical Response Team, Umlazi Cluster Crime Intelligence, Umlazi and Durban Central police stations, as well as the Durban Metro Police.]

Of the 14 recorded cases of alleged police torture at Glebelands:

  • One victim died during interrogation;
  • three were later assassinated;
  • two were detained for extended periods without being charged;
  • three witnesses reported they were subsequently harassed and intimidated by SAPS members – two since fled KZN; and
  • five were allegedly tortured during their arrest or arrested several months afterwards on seemingly malicious charges.

In all cases charges were eventually withdrawn or the victims/suspects acquitted. All of those allegedly tortured by police were block committee members or their associates who had opposed the ethnic and political prejudice of their ward councillor and accused him of corruption and failure to deliver basic services. Two cases of alleged torture were reported to the Umlazi SAPS. However, the complainants failed to receive feedback from the police and both were subsequently assassinated in 2015.

Official response to reports of torture has shown no commitment to international legislation protecting human rights. Witnesses and victims of torture are extremely fearful of making complaints against officers that abuse them, not only because they fear reprisals – in four cases these fears were justified – but because their trust in the state and its ability or will to protect its citizens has been destroyed by the act of torture. Victims also lack the means, information and support needed to fight for justice within a system that currently perpetuates impunity. Apart from the trauma of the incident itself, victims often lose their jobs through extended time-off caused by malicious arrest, court proceedings, PTSD-related problems, physical injuries or permanent disabilities.

* Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice. (082 847 7766 / Email:[email protected])

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism provided this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter and help us do more. Know more? Send us
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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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