How SAPS protects the killers within its ranks

31 mins read

Every year, police in South Africa kill hundreds of people and are accused of brutalising thousands more. A new investigation by Viewfinder has revealed that the killings and brutality are enabled by police management’s reluctance to discipline officers accused of wrongdoing in these cases. This is true even when watchdog investigations conclude that these officers should be disciplined. Given free rein to re-offend, problem officers may become emboldened. For their victims, the consequences can be dire.

On 2 June 2014, 52-year-old Phindile Ramncwana lay dying at a neighbour’s house in Sada, a rural township in the former Ciskei region of the Eastern Cape. As Esther Kasam tended to him, she recoiled at the sight of blood and vomit in a five-liter container on the floor beside his bed. Ramncwana retched when he tried to eat. He complained of stabbing pains in his stomach, Kasam recalled during a recent interview.

“Phindile, what did you say when they were hitting you?” Kasam had asked.

“I was crying a lot. I asked what I had done to be beaten like this. I begged for forgiveness,” came his response.

People who said that they witnessed the assault would later provide statements to an investigator from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). They described how, on the night before, a police officer tackled Ramncwana to the ground in Whittlesea police station’s charge office when he apparently defied instructions “not to make a noise”. Ramncwana had been arrested earlier for being “drunk and disorderly”, according to police station records.

At least three other policemen, including a warrant officer who was on duty in a command role that night, joined in the assault, according to one witness’ statement. They slammed Ramncwana’s head first into the wall and then into the floor, they kicked him in the ribs as he lay shielding himself.

Phindile Ramncwana

The full extent of the assault is not apparent from these witness statements. Yet, when Ramncwana was released from custody early the next morning he could barely walk, according to a taxi driver who saw him. It was the middle of winter. Ramncwana had limped into the taxi rank, the driver said, barefoot, hunched over and holding his stomach, to ask for a lift home.

Later that day, as he lay in bed, Ramncwana’s condition worsened. Kasam recalls how she ran out to borrow a wheelbarrow. She covered Ramncwana in her best, new blanket and followed on foot as neighbours wheeled him to Sada Clinic.

There, a nurse also witnessed Ramncwana “crying” in pain and “vomiting blood”. When an ambulance failed to respond to his calls, the nurse drove Ramncwana to Hewu Hospital in his own car. Hospital records show that Ramcwana complained of stomach pains for the last time at 4:10 am the following morning. Then, these records show, he started “gasping” for air and hospital staff administered oxygen to him via a mask.

“He Rest in Peace at 7:00 am,” the log book’s scribbles recorded. A doctor was called to certify Ramncwana’s death.

A week later, a postmortem report revealed the extent of his injuries: abrasions and bruises all over his body, two fractured ribs, bruises to his heart and a ruptured small intestine. From this rupture, intestinal content had slowly seeped into the cavity holding Ramncwana’s abdominal organs. This caused the infection which killed him.

Whittlesea: a pattern of abuse

“This is a very, very serious case,” said Dr Steve Naidoo, one of South Africa’s leading forensic pathologists with decades of experience in conducting post mortems on people who have died in police custody, on studying the report’s findings. He added that Ramncwana’s injuries were typical of “extreme interpersonal violence” which probably comprised kicking and stomping.

In mid-2014, police management in Whittlesea knew that there was a problem of brutality within its ranks. Over the two previous years, the station had registered a slew of assault cases against its own officers. According to IPID’s data on the outcomes of these cases, SAPS management took very little action. This is not uncommon for a police station in a poor community in South Africa.

Whittlesea SAPS (photo: Anton Scholtz)

Visit Sada today and stories from those years, of a task team from Whittlesea SAPS raiding taverns and prowling the unlit streets at night to arrest and beat up the fleeing patrons, still abound. The name of the warrant officer who reportedly led such operations, and who was accused in Ramncwana’s killing, is still steeped in notoriety. Viewfinder understands, from IPID’s records on the case, that he was acquitted in a disciplinary hearing and remained on duty at Whittlesea SAPS long after Ramncwana’s death. As of June last year he enjoys early retirement, according to a check of government’s PERSAL system by a source.

The IPID Act, which came into force around two years before Ramncwana’s death, affirmed that station commanders should transfer such cases to the directorate’s relevant provincial office. In the Eastern Cape, IPID is in East London some 200 kilometers away from Whittlesea. Today, still, police commanders throughout South Africa would argue, as police minister Bheki Cele has done, that this means they must outsource the cases and wait for the outcomes of IPID’s investigation before suspending or disciplining officers.

So, officers accused in even the most serious violent crimes often remain on duty.

IPID is a fraught and overworked institution. Viewfinder has previously revealed that the directorate has a history of “completing” poorly investigated cases to inflate performance statistics, while obstructing justice for victims of police brutality. Even when investigations are thorough, the completion of these are often delayed for months, due to massive case backlogs, a dearth in manpower, delays in technical reports and long distances to crime scenes. Interviewed about the Whittlesea cases, IPID Eastern Cape head Bongiwe Tukela lamented that she has only 12 “foot soldiers” to cover the rural vastness of the province.

In spite of these odds, some IPID cases do lead to criminal or disciplinary recommendations against accused officers. For instance, Tukela’s office recommended that police management discipline certain officers accused of assault and other crimes at Whittlesea in the years before and after Ramncwana’s alleged murder. But, the watchdog’s data show that hardly any were disciplined.

According to IPID data, four Whittlesea officers — the warrant officer, a constable and two police reservists whose identities are known to Viewfinder — had pending assault cases and disciplinary recommendations against them on the night that they were implicated in Ramncwana’s killing. People present at the station’s charge office on the night also accused two officers implicated in the Ramncwana case of separate assaults: with “fists” and an “iron rod” in one instance and with “open hands” and “police boots” in the other.

An upcoming short film by Viewfinder revisits Whittlesea in rural Eastern Cape and unpacks the circumstances surrounding Phindile Ramncwana’s death.

Nomandilakhe Gamana was the complainant in another, older assault case against a constable implicated in Ramncwana’s killing. She was left badly bruised and bleeding from her private parts, she recalled during a recent interview. When she reported her assault at the police station, she said, the officer taking her statement scoffed and assured her pointblank that the case “would go nowhere”.

“I thought that (he) was going to be arrested for what he did to me. I guess it never happened because he is a policeman,” Gamana shrugged.

Across South Africa, impunity reigns

As part of an investigation which has now spanned more than two years, Viewfinder has collated and analysed IPID’s raw data on thousands of alleged killings by police and tens of thousands of other brutality complaints. Taken across more than a thousand police stations in South Africa, these data show that violence permeates police work in the country. These records also reveal that police management routinely fails to discipline officers accused of brutality.

This is often true when allegations are registered at police stations – because station commanders outsource the dossiers to IPID. Yet, it is also usually true when IPID completes its investigations and expressly recommends that police management discipline officers via departmental hearings. SAPS converts fewer than one in four IPID recommendations into disciplinary convictions, according to the watchdog’s case data.

Few police brutality cases result in disciplinary recommendations against accused officers, but when they do convictions and proper sanctions are rare. Interact with this visualisation by filtering the data according to province and the classes of crimes that IPID investigates. (Data visualisation: Viewfinder)

If they were meted out properly, SAPS departmental sanctions could be effective in taking problem officers off the street. For SAPS management, the burden of proof for securing a disciplinary conviction is much lower than for a prosecutor pursuing a criminal conviction in court. So too is the likelihood of delays. Criminal proceedings against police officers can drag on for years – the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in the Eastern Cape is yet to decide whether to institute murder charges against the officers accused in Ramncwana’s 2014 killing.

The ultimate power of police management over these internal disciplinary processes explodes the notion that IPID is able to provide external or “independent” police oversight in South Africa – the purpose for which it exists. And, the reluctance of police management to properly enforce disciplinary recommendations leaves IPID’s officials in the provinces cynical and demoralised. Police officers, like those accused of terrorising Sada’s residents and murdering Ramncwana, are often left unpunished.

Killings by police in KwaZulu-Natal

Police management’s failure to discipline officers for killing people is most frequent where it is probably needed most, IPID data shows. Between early 2012 and early 2020, police in KwaZulu-Natal killed 1,057 people in 849 separate incidents — more than in any other province, in absolute numbers and per capita.

Between early 2012 and early 2020, case data show that KwaZulu-Natal police management only convicted nine officers following IPID investigations into these killings. This meant that police in the province had the country’s lowest rate for converting IPID negative recommendations against officers accused of misconduct in such killings into disciplinary convictions.

Asked about SAPS in KwaZulu Natal’s interpretation of the high body count and the low disciplinary outcomes, spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala refused to comment.

“Kindly contact IPID for details and comment as we cannot comment on their reports and findings,” she said. Versions of this response – a refusal to comment and a referral to IPID – is common from police spokespeople in South Africa when queried about such killings and alleged brutality.

Police in KwaZulu Natal have killed more people in recent years than in any other province. Umlazi, south of Durban, is a hotspot for killings by police according to IPID data. (footage: Jimmy Reynolds).

Across all provinces and all classes of crimes that IPID investigates, the data shows that the problem of SAPS failing to discipline officers with recommendations against them has got worse in recent years.

Police “can do no wrong”

Police management have ample opportunity to scupper IPID disciplinary recommendations to protect their colleagues.

“They stand with their members, always. They don’t believe that police officers can do any wrong,” said one former senior IPID official, quoted on condition of anonymity.

Police officers in charge of enforcing discipline may exploit a confluence of loopholes and ambiguity in law and SAPS’s discipline regulations to nullify IPID recommendations.

Sometimes, says Thabo Leholo, the long-serving head of IPID in the Western Cape, police refuse to discipline an officer because an alleged offense happened “a long time ago”. Viewfinder understands that such an excuse may be rooted in SAPS’s interpretation of a regulatory clause which prescribes an “expeditious process” for serious allegations of misconduct such as murder, serious assault and rape.

“(Police management) ignore the merits of the case and start holding on to a technicality that does not exist, or is the result of a wrong interpretation,” says Leholo.

Viewfinder has seen a sample of disciplinary outcome reports by SAPS in the Western Cape which showed that the “time delay” between an alleged offence and a disciplinary hearing was cited by SAPS as the reason for an acquittal.

SAPS Western Cape spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel André Traut did not respond to a question about the interpretation of the “expeditious process” clause in the police’s discipline regulations and whether it could be used to acquit officers accused of violence.

“Any process in consideration of disciplinary steps against any member is based on legal principles. Therefore, each case is dealt with on its own merits,” he said.

In other instances, throughout South Africa, police management interpret their legal obligation to “initiate” IPID recommendations as cause to appoint their own investigator to reinvestigate an IPID case from scratch. At best this is duplication. At worst, according to an IPID source, these SAPS disciplinary investigators spook witnesses into silence, retraumitise victims and deliberately throw doubt on the findings of the original investigation.

As far back as 2014, the directorate’s compliance monitoring head Mariaan Geerdts complained to Parliament that this custom “defeated the entire exercise” for which IPID exists.

Parliament of South Africa (photo: Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp)

The loophole was not closed. Instead, it was re-entrenched by SAPS’s new discipline regulations published in 2016. Today, still, the police watchdog can do very little if these internal police investigations whitewash the case against an accused officer. In such instances, exculpatory findings by a police disciplinary investigator — or an ad hoc decision by police management not to initiate disciplinary proceedings — will supersede the findings of probable wrongdoing by an “independent” watchdog investigation.

“If I’m the commander and my member that I want, that I’m buddy-buddy with, has done something, I’m not going to take steps against him. I’m going to do everything to stop steps from being taken,” said one current IPID official, quoted on condition of anonymity.

In instances where disciplinary hearings actually proceed, police officers deputised as “employer representatives” are tasked with leading evidence. If they are listless or selective in this task, this invariably results in the acquittal of their accused colleague. In such instances, the IPID investigators who originally gathered the evidence can do nothing if their case is misconstrued by incompetence or design. Often these investigators do not even know of the hearing’s date and outcome until after the fact. Police management are not obliged to invite IPID investigators or independent observers to ensure the integrity of such hearings. These happen behind closed doors.

In these hearings the accused person, SAPS’s representative (tasked with leading evidence against the accused), and the chairperson (who must decide on guilt or innocence and hand down a sanction) are all police officers.

“We’ve asked many times in the past, ‘please involve us, invite us to these disciplinary hearings’. (SAPS management) made it clear that they prefer for us not to be involved,” Geerdts said during a recent interview.

All but one of the six officers who faced a departmental hearing for Ramncwana’s arrest and alleged killing were acquitted, according to IPID in the Eastern Cape. But, the outcome report, seen by Viewfinder, was short on detail and reasons. When queried on the case, SAPS in Eastern Cape refused to comment. “Internal disciplinary measures taken against any employees are a matter between the employer and the employees,” said police spokesperson Sibongile Soci.

Last week, Viewfinder provided SAPS in the Eastern Cape with a list of 36 case numbers registered between 2012 and 2016. These included assault and other allegations against the officers implicated in Ramncwana’s killing and against Whittlesea police officers, in general. The SAPS Eastern Cape media centre acknowledged receipt, but it did not respond to a query about whether any officers had been disciplined for any of these cases. According to IPID data, only 2 of these cases had led to disciplinary convictions by the end of March 2020.

Low sanctions

“It’s so demoralising,” said Leholo, reflecting on the lack of transparency in SAPS disciplinary hearings and outcomes.

“IPID investigators put a lot of effort into these investigations. And, you’ve got a strong or prima facie case against the (police) member. And there is no justification for the brutalisation of the victim. Then you find out down the line a matter is thrown out on the basis of technicality – a technicality, I emphasise, that does not exist … I do not think it is fair to the victims.”

Annelizé van Wyk, former chair of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee for Policing (PCP), was instrumental in drafting the IPID Act of 2011. She agrees that regulatory technicalities cannot reasonably supersede the intention of the law. The intention of this law, she says, was that IPID recommendations would be binding, and that SAPS would enforce swift discipline against officers found on the wrong end of these.

Former chair of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee for Policing, Annelizé van Wyk (photo: Ashraf Hendricks / GroundUp)

Yet, even a disciplinary conviction is no guarantee of proper accountability. In the fraction of IPID cases which result in disciplinary convictions, the sanctions handed down are often light: small fines, suspended sentences or warnings which are struck from a convicted officer’s personnel file within a matter of months.

Because SAPS’s departmental processes are so opaque, even to IPID, it is difficult to know exactly why this is. One explanation, Geerdts believes, is that though officers may be accused of very serious transgressions, departmental hearings only find them guilty of lesser charges of misconduct.

IPID has confirmed that one of the officers accused of misconduct in the killing of Phindile Ramncwana was convicted in a hearing. He was suspended for two months without pay, but kept his job. He is still on duty at Whittlesea police station today, according to a check of the government’s PERSAL system by a Viewfinder source.

A slow collapse of police discipline

Research by the Dullah Omar Institute has found that the reluctance of police management to enforce IPID recommendations occurs against a backdrop of a slow decline in SAPS management’s ability to enforce discipline. Even though there has been no significant decline in the number of killings and alleged brutality reported to IPID in recent years, SAPS Annual Reports statistics show that there has been a marked decline in the number of officers brought before disciplinary hearings and convicted (across all categories of alleged misconduct, not just ones related to the use of force).

Reported killings and brutality by police has remained relatively consistent in recent years, while the number of disciplinary hearings and convictions across all categories of misconduct have been declining steadily. (Data visualisation: Viewfinder)

For an officer fairly accused of once-off assault, management’s increasing apathy towards discipline amounts to a big let-off. For vigilantes, sadists or repeat offenders, it gives virtual free rein. They may commit and recommit abuses in the knowledge that they will probably never be fired by their employers. As repeat offenders go unchecked, the severity of their crimes often escalates, concludes Leholo.

IPID case data shows that Ramncwana’s alleged killing was probably the culmination of a pattern of brutality at Whittlesea police station (in general) and by a group of police officers (in specific). And, six of the officers accused of misconduct for his arrest and killing were implicated in violent crimes in the months to follow. In each instance IPID investigated and recommended that the officers be disciplined. Its records show that this routinely did not happen.

A pattern of brutality left unchecked? IPID complaints data shows that officers accused of misconduct for Ramncwana’s arrest and killing had pending assault cases against their names or would reportedly go on to reoffend. (Animation produced by Viewfinder).

Viewfinder has established that two of the officers accused in the Ramncwana case were eventually discharged from the police and one has also resigned from the service. Yet, SAPS Eastern Cape’s failure to respond to queries meant that Viewfinder could not verify whether these dismissals and resignation were as a result of disciplinary action for known cases against these officers.

Last week, Viewfinder submitted a query detailing many of the facts, findings and concerns from IPID officials contained in this article to SAPS national management. SAPS spokesperson Colonel Athlenda Mathe confirmed receipt and said that the query had been sent to SAPS “personnel management” for response. SAPS had not responded at time of publication.

A loss of faith

Sada is the product of successive forced removals. The first families were trucked here by the apartheid government from their homes on white-owned farms around Queenstown in the 1960s. Then families were brought from further afield – from Tarkastad and Adelaide, from Molteno and Port Alfred and eventually from the Western Cape and what was then the Transvaal.

Forced Removals at Kammaskraal, near Peddie in the former Ciskei, in 1982 (photo: Ben Maclennan / Surplus People Project / UCT Libraries Special Collections)

Repressed for decades and still desperately poor, Sada is the type of community that policy makers had in mind when drafting a human-rights-centered mission for the post-apartheid police service.

For Esther Kasam, the failure of that mission is personal, not a datapoint. She loved Phindile Ramncwana like a son, she says. In a community where even food is scarce, she cooked for him and he built a kitchen sink for her to say thank you. Her husband and this younger man were best friends.

Kasam is 85 years old. In the late 1960s her family and her husband’s were taken from their homes on a farm outside Tarkastad, loaded onto trucks, and brought to Sada under police guard. For her, the police were a scourge then. They still are today.

Esther Kasam (photo: Anton Scholtz)

“My heart is broken,” she says, remembering how she and her neighbours followed in a procession behind the wheelbarrow taking Ramncwana to Sada Clinic. “I have never recovered. I cannot stand to interact with the police. I don’t want their greetings.”

Are you a police brutality victim whose case was poorly handled? Are you an IPID investigator or a police officer with feedback or info that we should know? Do you have questions about this investigation? We would like to hear from you. Get in touch.

This investigation was funded by the Henry Nxumalo Fund for Investigative Reporting, Luminate, Millennium Trust and GroundUp. This article was edited by GroundUp.

Header poster design by Alex Noble, with photos by Alaister Russell for The Citizen and Ashraf Hendricks for GroundUp

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