Police are not held accountable for child killings, watchdog records reveal

18 mins read
Sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Julies was allegedly shot and killed by police in Eldorado Park on 26 August

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has investigated the killings and deaths in custody of dozens of children since 2012. Almost none of these cases have resulted in convictions. As the justice system moves swiftly on the Nathaniel Julies murder case in Eldorado Park, the police watchdog finds itself at a crossroads. This week IPID’s new head will visit some of the directorate’s provincial offices to give “strategic direction” to ensure that justice is served for police brutality victims and their families. But, can her leadership overcome years of cover-up and dysfunction?

Few criminal cases against the police receive as much public attention as the killing of 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who had Down syndrome, in Eldorado Park on 26 August. Julies was laid to rest on Saturday.

The reaction from investigators and prosecutors was also decisive. Within a week, IPID arrested three police officers. The suspects have all appeared in court, charged variously with murder, accessory to murder and defeating the ends of justice. Police minister Bheki Cele visited Julies’ family and vowed that justice would be served if the accused police officers were found guilty.

“I’m just glad that they are apprehended… that they are in custody,” Cyril Brown, a Julies family representative, told reporters after two of the officers appeared in the Protea Magistrates court last Monday. “We just hope that there are no glitches in the case and that justice will take its course… For now, we are quite happy with the proceedings.”

But, such satisfaction and an outcome – justice for Nathaniel Julies’ family – would be an exception.

A new Viewfinder analysis has found that almost none of the cases of children allegedly killed by the police, or of those who have died in custody in recent years have resulted in police officers being held accountable.

A snapshot of children allegedly killed by police in South Africa

IPID’s case data contains a field for the age of people who have died “as a result of police action” or “in police custody”. This field is often blank, but where details are recorded it is possible to isolate a sample of deceased children. According to this data, excluding cases where children reportedly died in road accidents, IPID investigated the killings and deaths in custody of at least 39 children between April 2012 and March 2018.

As with almost any cross section of the police watchdog’s case data, this sample contains descriptions of excessive violence by police officers.

In September 2013, a Cato Manor police officer shot 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza in the back during a protest by Durban-based shackdwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.

In December 2014, a Melmoth police officer allegedly shot his girlfriend’s three children with his service firearm when he suspected her of infidelity. Four-year-old Sphamandla Ndlanzi was killed while his two teenage sisters survived.

In March 2015, also near Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal, police allegedly killed three-month-old Ntandoyethu Mdunge when they raided a homestead in search of illegal firearms. According to IPID’s complaint description, the baby was strapped to her mother’s back and died after a police officer pushed the woman into a wall.

In September 2015, a police officer allegedly beat 16-year-old Thulani Ndlela to death with a concrete block in Kwadukuza, KwaZulu-Natal.

In December 2015, 17-year-old Austin Goliath was found hanging by his socks in a police cell in Piketberg, Western Cape. Last year, Viewfinder analysed IPID’s docket in this case and concluded that the investigator probably never attended the scene, much less conducted a thorough investigation.

In March 2016, police allegedly shot 11-year-old Anqobile Sikhweza in the back when they fired “warning shots” at protesters demanding electricity services in Ntabankulu’s Sidakeni township, Eastern Cape.

In May 2016, police arrested 17-year-old Rasedupe Rampopo in Kroonstad in the Free State “for questioning about the theft of the chairs”. As they led the boy away, one officer apparently told Rampopo’s mother that they would teach her son a lesson. According to IPID’s complaint description, Rampopo was later “found dead” near a bridge. The cause of death was recorded as “suffocation”.

In October 2017, eight-year-old Damin Swart died at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital reportedly after a stun grenade exploded in his face when police tried to disperse a crowd in Kraaifontein, Western Cape.

Of the 39 cases in the sample, according to available data as at March 2019, the murder of Nqobile Nzuza is the only one to have led to a criminal conviction. In the two disciplinary convictions for “murder” emanating from the sample the sentences were light: a “dismissal, wholly suspended for two months” in a case related to the death in custody of a 15-year-old boy in Komga, Eastern Cape in November 2013; and, a “verbal warning” for the fatal shooting “from behind” of a 17-year-old boy near Somerset West in March 2015.

Despite this low conviction ratio, many of the cases were marked as “closed” or “completed” and reported as statistical successes in IPID’s annual reports.

IPID’s habit of “completing” superficial investigations to inflate performance statistics – a practice which obstructed justice for victims and allowed perpetrators in the police to escape accountability – was the subject of Viewfinder’s exposé on the directorate last year.

Viewfinder also analysed the outcomes of tens of thousands of criminal cases against the police, registered by IPID between 2012 and 2019, and found that only around one in 100 such cases led to a criminal conviction. The ratio is slightly higher if one also takes disciplinary convictions into account.

Victims’ families are disillusioned with IPID

From our interviews with surviving victims and with the families of people allegedly killed by police, Viewfinder has deduced that this ratio is underpinned by widespread disillusionment with the police watchdog’s investigators and processes.

These families and victims bemoan the apparent low quality of IPID investigations and a lack of feedback from case workers (feedback which these officials are legally obliged to give). For instance, Viewfinder has engaged at length with the families of two men who died after alleged assaults by the police during the first few days of Covid-19 lockdown enforcement. Both families still feel stonewalled by IPID.

“I just feel very disappointed in everything – IPID’s case… and the fact that they don’t let me know anything,” said Valene Meintjies, whose stepfather Petrus Miggels died from a heart attack in Ravensmead, Western Cape, shortly after he was allegedly assaulted by the police on the first day of lockdown.

“I don’t believe that IPID is doing enough to bring the police to book,” said Thembi Nkosi, whose brother Ishmael Gama was allegedly tortured with boiling water and beaten to death with a brick by police after he was apprehended for stealing car parts at a police pound in Lenasia, Gauteng, on 1 April.

“I’m entirely dissatisfied (with IPID) because they only give information when I’m the one reaching out and my family still has too many unanswered questions as to why the case has not gone to court.”

Sometimes, IPID’s failure to arrest perpetrators or to give feedback leave victims’ families in limbo for years. This was a central theme in A Killing in the Winelands, Viewfinder’s documentary film of last year which followed Atang Thokoane, a migrant worker from Lesotho, as he revisited the murder of his brother by police in De Doorns, Western Cape, in 2013.

Another case from 2013 relates to the murder of 15-year-old Damian Arendse who was fatally shot in the back, allegedly by a police officer, in Wesbank on the Cape Flats in December of that year. Damian’s case was one of those in the data sample analysed above.

Over the six years following her son’s murder, Klarina Arendse says that she has consistently tried to get an answer from IPID’s case worker and from the prosecutor to whom the docket was referred. Her requests for feedback have been snubbed, she says. Viewfinder’s queries about the case to IPID and the NPA also went unanswered.

Klarina Reed's 15-year-old son, Damian Arendse, was shot and killed, allegedly by police, in Wesbank in December 2013 (photo: Anton Scholtz)
Klarina Arendse’s 15-year-old son, Damian Arendse, was shot and killed, allegedly by police, in Wesbank in December 2013 (photo: Anton Scholtz)

Arendse says, “What happened in Eldorado Park, that boy was 16-years-old …  I sympathise with the family … The attention that family gets, from the media, from Bheki Cele, policemen are being locked up, but for my child no one was locked up … I can’t think why the one gets justice and the other one does not get justice, because they were both children … I’m so devastated.”

IPID’s recommits to improve as new leader seeks to prove herself

Apart from the swift arrests, another remarkable aspect of IPID’s response to the Julies case was the visibility of the watchdog’s new head Jennifer Dikeledi Ntlatseng. It was not common for Ntlatseng’s predecessors to present themselves, as she did, at the scene of a crime and to speak freely with reporters. She expressed her concerns over alleged crime scene tampering by the police and said that IPID’s investigation would be thorough.

In July, Police Minister Bheki Cele’s appointment of Ntlatseng was criticised by opposition MPs and civil society organisations for a lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight. Critics were concerned, in light of a long history of allegations of political manipulation of the police watchdog, that the minister would exert influence over Ntlatseng to protect corruption accused police officers from investigation. In response, Ntlatseng has vowed that she would be tough on corruption and criminality within the police service.

In particular, she has championed the plight of women allegedly raped by police officers and committed IPID to better engage victims and communities. Just days after visiting the scene in Eldorado Park, Ntlatseng was in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, where she reassured the family of an 8-year-old rape victim that IPID is “committed to ensure that justice is served for the young girl.”

This victim-centered approach would set an example within an organisation often experienced as aloof and indifferent to the victims’ or their families’ need for feedback, justice and closure. But, the police watchdog’s future impact relies on more than a change in its engagement with victims and families.

This week, IPID announced that Ntlatseng will visit the directorate’s Eastern Cape and Western Cape provincial offices to give “strategic direction” and brief them on “strategies” for “ensuring justice is served for victims as well as their families”. This comes after Ntlatseng has identified “various policy interventions” for the next five years to “enhance” and “fast-track” cases. Viewfinder understands that these interventions would necessarily extend to improvements in how IPID manages its massive case load and pursues and measures its impact on police conduct and accountability.

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing (PCP) have consistently expressed concern that IPID’s performance indicators and targets allow for neither the directorate, nor the committee to gauge the actual impact of its investigations on police conduct.

In fact, Viewfinder found that IPID’s performance indicators incentivised poor investigations and premature case completion to artificially inflate performance statistics. This finding prompted a report, with a number of recommendations, from the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF).

In February the PCP circulated APCOF’s recommendations at a meeting with IPID. The police watchdog committed to heed the recommendations and to implement a series of policy improvements.

Explainer: APCOF’s recommendations to IPID 

What policy changes did APCOF recommend and how will it help IPID hold criminal cops accountable? Why is it important that IPID’s performance indicators change as well? For a fuller explanation, read Viewfinder’s review of the APCOF report where these recommendations were made. READ MORE

On the same day that Ntlatseng met with the rape victim’s family in Uitenhage, senior members of her management team met with APCOF director Sean Tait. They discussed potential policy interventions which would help IPID fulfill its commitment to improve its impact on police conduct and accountability.

“There remains an urgent need for IPID to begin monitoring its impact. In the eyes of many people, IPID appears increasingly ineffective in addressing police criminality and abuses of power,” said Tait after the meeting. He added that it was encouraging that IPID followed up on its commitment in February by engaging APCOF.

“Assessing impact is a complex undertaking and while there is still much work required… (the follow-up meeting) did demonstrate a will within IPID to improve its performance.”

Next month, it will be a year since Viewfinder exposed that poor case management practices and performance indicators at IPID obstructed justice for the victims of police brutality in South Africa. Also in October, Ntlatseng will for the first time present IPID’s annual report to Parliament. But, her presentation will not be judged on IPID’s performance statistics for the 2019/20 financial year (the directorate still subscribes to and reports the old, debunked performance statistics).

Rather, parliamentarians, police brutality victims and their families will wait to hear what Ntlatseng proposes for the next five years. For such a proposal to have any weight, it cannot but outline a clear departure from case management practices and performance indicators which for years have underwritten IPID’s failure to actually impact on police conduct and accountability.

This article forms part of an ongoing series on alleged police criminality and police oversight in South Africa. It was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Henry Nxumalo Fund for Investigative Reporting. This article is edited and partly funded by GroundUp.

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