- Johannesburg residents' fight for justice has highlighted the lack of action against police officers accused of brutality on the job.
- Ishmael Gama died in March 2020 while in police custody in Lenasia.
- Analysis by Viewfinder has revealed the treatment of the police officers involved in Gama's case, shockingly, isn't unique to Gauteng.
During the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown last year, Ishmael Gama died in custody at the Lenasia police station.
In March, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) recommended that police management discipline eight officers implicated in Gama's torture and killing. Months later, the police are yet to do so.
Gama's case is typical in Gauteng, where police have reportedly killed more than 900 people since 2012.
Now, a new analysis of watchdog statistics suggests that Gauteng police management has stopped disciplining officers implicated in violent crimes altogether. Viewfinder went to investigate.
At around midnight on 31 March 2020, police officers caught two men stripping car parts at a vehicle pound in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. The officers tied the pair up, detained them inside a security hut and started boiling a kettle of water, recalled Themba Mdluli, one of the men interviewed by Viewfinder last year.
Then, he said, the officers poured the contents of the kettle all over him and his friend, Ishmael Gama. The officers refilled the kettle and repeated the routine. Over the next few hours, the police beat the two continuously, Mdluli said.
The torture apparently broke the two men – they gave up the names of others who they said had stolen car parts from the pound in the past. For the police, this was a lead worth pursuing.
As the sun rose the next morning, the police drove Gama and Mdluli into Thembelihle informal settlement to search for the others. There the police found and arrested Neville Nyandeni, 36, and drove them all back to the pound.
"They hit us with pipes. Every police officer that got there would join in on the beating," said Nyandeni.
Nyandeni led police to a chop shop where stolen car parts from the pound could be found. The police raided the place and later piled up the recovered loot back at the pound.
They called Cannedy Netshitungulu, a reporter from Rising Sun Lenasia community newspaper. The photos Netshitungulu took on the day show the pile of car parts and the suspects arrested by police. In one of the photos, a man lies face down on the tarmac - barefoot except for one tattered sock. That was Ishmael Gama, according to his older sister, Thembi Nkosi, who identified him by his clothes.
During a phone call, Netshitungulu said he had no idea Gama was seriously injured at the time.
The Rising Sun's caption on the arrests, under the headline "Lockdown, Lock up", simply said the police had "followed a lead" to recover "motorcycles, tyres, radiators, car batteries and a homemade firearm". Six suspects were behind bars as the "investigation" continued.
Later that day, at the police station's charge office, Gama spoke to his friend Mdluli for the last time as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Nyandeni recalled that Gama's eyes were rolling back in his head. Gama asked Mdluli to bear witness to his death.
"Themba, I am dying. I want to die in front of you," he said, according to Mdluli.
Nyandeni recalled that a police officer - a "captain", he says - scoffed when he pleaded for an ambulance for Gama. Then, a police officer led Mdluli and Nyandeni to the cells. They were told to leave Gama behind. There, Gama died.
IPID reported the case to Parliament as one of the killings by police related to the Covid-19 lockdown.
In March this year, IPID recommended that eight police officers be disciplined for their alleged involvement in Gama's killing. Fifteen weeks later this has not happened, according to IPID.
Cases of assault, torture and killings pervasive, but police not arrested
Of the nine provinces, Gauteng's IPID office registered some of the highest numbers of deaths in custody and assault cases against the police. Police in the province have also killed more than 900 people since 2012, according to the watchdog's tally.
In recent months, Johannesburg, particularly the townships to the south of the city, has been the backdrop for a number of high-profile cases.
In August 2020, disabled teenager Nataniël Julies was fatally shot, allegedly by a police officer, in Eldorado Park.
In November, the Palm Ridge Magistrate's Court sentenced two police officers to 18 years' imprisonment for torturing and murdering 43-year-old Innocent Sebediela in Ennerdale in 2018.
In March, IPID arrested eight police officers for allegedly torturing a suspect to death at the Protea Glen police station. Also in March, Mthokozisi Ntumba was shot and killed, allegedly by a police officer, during a student protest in Braamfontein.
A review of IPID's case data for Gauteng and an interview with a Johannesburg-based attorney who represents police torture victims suggest that a significant proportion of police officers in the province use - or at least accept - violence when interrogating detainees. In Gama's case, the fact that police invited a journalist to the scene where a man lay dying from injuries that they had apparently inflicted on him probably reflected this acceptance.
Complaints of severe assault and torture in custody were common in the more than 7 000 cases that IPID had registered in the province between 2012 and 2020. Viewfinder has read the complaint descriptions for many of these cases.
Peter Jordi, an associate professor and head of the Wits University Law Clinic, has represented police torture victims in civil suits against the police for about 30 years.
"When I started with these kinds of cases, torture seemed to be used by the more specialised units," he said, singling out the now-defunct Brixton Murder and Robbery Unit.
"But it seems to have spread more widely."
Jordi now represents Themba Mdluli and Thembi Nkosi, Ishmael Gama's sister. They are suing the Minister of Police for damages. Even if they are successful, it will not necessarily mean the officers accused of Gama's killing will be held accountable. Civil claims are settled by the South African Police Service as a department, often without consequences for the officers whose actions resulted in the lawsuits.
In all the high-profile cases from recent months mentioned above, police officers were arrested. But, this gave a skewed impression. Available data from recent years (IPID did not publish arrests data in 2018-'19) suggested that the police watchdog made fewer than three arrests for every 100 cases it registered in Gauteng.
Has Gauteng SAPS stopped disciplining cops who torture and kill?
Yet, the low number of arrests was eclipsed by another statistic from IPID in the province. Between April 2016 and March 2020 (the most recent month for which audited statistics are available), IPID has not reported on SAPS disciplining a single police officer implicated in a violent crime. This is despite more than 300 IPID disciplinary recommendations against police officers for offences ranging from shootings, torture, assault and rape; and, more than 50 recommendations that SAPS discipline officers for killings and deaths in custody.
Viewfinder has previously reported on SAPS' apparent contempt for watchdog findings and recommendations against its own officers. Yet, these statistics from Gauteng - which suggest that no officers have been disciplined for violent crimes between 2016 and 2020 - appear to be too outlandish to be true. Viewfinder contacted IPID's spokesperson Ndileka Cola, compliance monitoring head Mariaan Geerdts and SAPS spokesperson Captain Kay Makhubele for clarification. They all failed to respond to the query.
In Viewfinder's experience, SAPS rarely responds to questions about alleged killings and brutality by its members or police management's usual failure to act against officers implicated in these crimes. When station commanders are confronted with killings by police that have happened under their watch, they are likely to refer queries to provincial spokespeople.
This is what Lenasia station commander Brigadier YP Baloyi did when asked whether his office investigated or took any action against subordinates accused in Gama's killing. SAPS provincial spokespeople routinely refer queries to IPID.
This loop of referral and silence conceals a deep, nationwide disagreement between SAPS management and IPID's senior officials.
"The fact that we investigate the police does not excuse police management from doing their management function, which is to take action against their members when they become aware of misconduct,' said one senior IPID official, quoted anonymously here because they were speaking without an official mandate.
Viewfinder is aware that this view was being held by other senior IPID officials as well.
But, SAPS commanders and management see things differently. Their spokespeople often contend that the police must wait for IPID's recommendations before SAPS can act against implicated officers. Yet, Viewfinder's investigation previously revealed that, despite this, SAPS rarely disciplined officers with recommendations against them.
So problem officers, like those accused of torturing and killing Ishmael Gama, usually remain on duty - both when a case is registered and when the watchdog makes negative findings against them.
Reflections on the death of Ishmael Gama
The families and friends of people killed by police have not studied the data nor the details of the disagreements between IPID officials and police management.
Ishmael Gama's sister, Thembi Nkosi, knows only that she was turned away when she arrived at the Lenasia police station to ask whether the station commander had dealt with the men accused of beating her brother to death.
"I'm still traumatised because of what happened to us," said Nyandeni.
"What the police did is totally wrong because they are the people that are supposed to help us. But, they are the ones who kill us. Since this whole thing happened, nothing has been done. They killed my friend right in front of me."
When South Africa's first lockdown was enforced, Gama lost his part-time job at a catering company. This, Nkosi believed, was what drove her brother to steal car parts at the pound on the night before he died. Though he struggled with addiction, he remained a good son and provided for his mother, she said.
"The station commander has never set foot in this house to discuss this case," said Maria Gama, Ishmael and Thembi's mother, during an interview at her house in Lenasia. She is frail and sickly.
"They are enjoying themselves in their houses, drinking tea with milk and sugar. What am I drinking? I also want a comfortable life. That is what Ishmael gave me. It was enough for me, even if it wasn't much, he would make sure we sleep with food on the table. Right now I don't have anything."
Additional reporting: Ihsaan Haffejee
Produced for GroundUp by Viewfinder. This article forms part of an ongoing investigation of police brutality and non-accountability in South Africa. It was funded, in part, by the Henry Nxumalo Fund for Investigative Reporting.
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