Welcome to ‘Mad Town’

2009-08-25 00:00

WHY didn’t the police who were on the scene when allegedly mentally disturbed Sihle Mhlongo (20) was bashing seven-month-pregnant Nompumelelo Ndlovu to death on Boom Street on Monday last week, shoot him earlier, and why are there so many people who seem to be mentally unbalanced in the Pietermaritzburg city centre?

Those are the questions that readers have been asking The Witness.

A policeman who spoke to The Witness on condition that he remains unnamed, made the astounding allegation that the city of Pietermaritzburg is known as “Mad Town”.

“It is well known among the police that police officers from other towns around the city, like Greytown, for example, have over the years picked up mentally disturbed people in their towns, and dropped them in the [Pietermaritzburg] city centre, to get rid of the problem. A lot of them are not residents of the city.”

Another police source said that the administrative nightmare precedes getting a mentally disturbed patient committed proves to be too time consuming for policemen with too much work to do and too few resources.

He said in his experience a patient has to be certified to be mentally disturbed by two different district surgeons to get a committal warrant. “That means waiting around all day to try and get an admission order for one of the facilities that caters for mental patients. And they don’t accept anyone at night, so what do you do? You can’t keep them in a cell, because if they hurt themselves you are in trouble.”

Responding to the allegations that police bring mentally disturbed people from other towns to the city, police spokesman Senior Super­intendent Henry Budhram denied this, saying it is against all rules and regulations.

One officer said that Boom Street and the area around 50 Durban Road are the places where mentally disturbed people are often found. “But some are quite harmless.”

In terms of why police did not act faster to save the life of Ndlovu, Budhram said that police have to follow the rule of law and that they can only use their firearms when all other possibilities have first been examined.

“They have to assess the situation and explore all steps possible to arrest the person first before they can shoot.”

Other policemen who spoke to The Witness on condition of anonymity, said police are very reluctant to shoot at mental pat­ients and other suspects, bec­ause if they die, they would be charged with culpable homicide.

“Those who have shot someone and who are charged, go through hell,” said one police officer. “As police officers we know this and that is why at a scene we are thinking, do we shoot, don’t we shoot.” The policeman cited two cases where policemen have been dismissed from the police force for having shot at suspects who had been holding police at bay with weapons.

“It’s a catch-22 situation. If you shoot you are in trouble and if you don’t you are in trouble. It’s a very fine line. You have seconds to make a decision and people have to look after themselves. Ultimately they will stand in the dock alone,” said another.

Another officer said that the three traffic officers who were first on scene at the incident in Boom Street, were unarmed. “The only one who was licensed to carry a gun, was unarmed at the time as his gun has been sent for ballistic testing.” He said next on scene was a police van carrying student police, who “were too scared to shoot”.

“The suspect challenged them and from the look in his eyes they realised he was way gone.” Finally, the motorbike unit arrived and an experienced senior policeman allegedly took aim and fired at Mhlongo, said the source, who adde­d that the officer needs to be commended. This information was not corroborated by polic­e.

“Cops are scared to use their guns or dogs against suspects but Cele [Police Commissioner, Bheki Cele] is trying to change that now,” added the source.

Web comments

Readers have responded with compassion and horror to the story of Nompumelelo Ndlovu’s death. This is a selection of comments posted on ‘The Witness’ website.


* “I have seen a disturbed man violently wielding a knife at passers-by on Durban Road. I’ve seen another walking buck-naked in Hoosen Haffejee Street. Many mentally ill people torture society by groping innocent young girls in the streets. Why wait for them to snap? We need to take action now. Not when another life or so is lost … They need to be taken off our streets for good.”

* “There are a lot of mentally disturbed people and street children wandering around the city. … I once had a brother who was mentally disturbed. Even though we loved him … sometimes [I felt he needed] to be removed from the community as he might attack people and the family, but they [the authorities] could not admit him [to] hospital forever. I was once chased by a madman in Pietermaritz Street and I ran into the nearby shop to seek assistance. The madman came in and said [that] he wanted to tell me that I was beautiful. However, I’ve seen him slapping [a lady in the face].”

* “Something needs to be done about these people who aimlessly walk around our city threatening innocent people. Next year the country will be hosting an important event with thousands of tourists. What will we do when one of the tourists gets attacked? At the end of the day, mentally disturbed people are human [beings], who need medical attention like people with any other sickness.”

* “It still puzzles me why mad people are still walking the streets of Pietermaritzburg daily. Perhaps their families will not take them in. Surely the government (i.e. those charged with welfare, safety and security) has a role to play. Daily one sees mad people at the same places or in the same vicinity, yet no one is removing them, even though they are a threat to us. Those whose responsibility it is to protect the public must learn from this.”

Getting a person committed

By Julia Denny-Dimitriou

A LOCAL psychiatrist explained that the procedure for having someone admitted as a psychiatric patient had changed in line with the new Mental Health Care Act of 2002, implemented in 2004. “Previously it was very easy for the SAPS to pick up someone who was behaving abnormally and drop them off at a facility. This is no longer possible because the new act is there not only to protect people’s rights, but also to make sure that people are not admitted as mentally ill when they are not. There are other illnesses that mimic mental health problems, for example, some of the conditions and complications that come with HIV/Aids.

“Now, people must take a family member they suspect of being mentally disturbed to a district hospital for 72-hour observation in a general ward.

“If a person refuses to co-operate, their family can call the SAPS who are obliged by the new act to take the person either to Edendale or Northdale hospital.

“If physical illness is excluded as a cause of mental disturbance, and the district hospital considers the patient to be mentally ill, only then can that person be transferred to Town Hill hospital, which is a closed facility.

“So the SAPS no longer take patients to Town Hill. They can only be referred by a district hospital.”

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