Show of strength: The SANDF on patrol in Yeoville, Johannesburg. SA’s security forces have been accused of being heavy-handed during the national lockdown. Picture: Alon Skuy
Show of strength: The SANDF on patrol in Yeoville, Johannesburg. SA’s security forces have been accused of being heavy-handed during the national lockdown. Picture: Alon Skuy

Collins Khosa was eating dinner when two uniformed members of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) walked into his yard in Alexandra carrying sjamboks. Seeing an unattended camping chair and an unfinished drink, the soldiers apparently accused him and his friend Thabiso Muvhango of violating the lockdown imposed on March 27 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

It was the evening of April 10 — Good Friday and day 15 of the lockdown. Within hours, Khosa would be dead, allegedly at the hands of the SANDF soldiers who are supposed to be safeguarding the public.

In documents filed in the Constitutional Court last week, Khosa’s life partner, Nomsa Montsha, paints a harrowing picture of the hours before his death.

On Montsha’s version, Khosa told the SANDF members that, even if he had been drinking, it did not amount to an offence because he was in his own yard. In response, she says, the soldiers raided the house, confiscating one beer from Khosa’s fridge and one from Muvhango’s. They then ordered the two men outside, so they could "prove a point".

There, the situation escalated — Montsha claims the soldiers vandalised Khosa’s car, and forced the two men to stand outside the yard with the beers on the ground as the soldiers waited for backup. Three more SANDF members and officers of the Joburg metro police arrived.

According to Montsha’s affidavit, the soldiers then poured beer over Khosa; one allegedly held his hands behind his back, while another choked him. She alleges he was slammed against a cement wall, hit with the butt of a gun, and kicked, slapped and punched in the face, stomach and ribs before being slammed into a steel gate.

"During the entire incident, I kept shouting that they must stop hurting Mr Khosa as they were going to kill him," her affidavit reads. "My plea was ignored."

Montsha says she was herself whipped with a sjambok.

On the streets: An SANDF soldier manning a 24-hour roadblock on the N2 near Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Picture: Getty Images/Roger Sedrus
On the streets: An SANDF soldier manning a 24-hour roadblock on the N2 near Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Picture: Getty Images/Roger Sedrus

After the soldiers and police left and she’d taken Khosa inside, Montsha says he started vomiting, could not walk or talk, and lost consciousness. Three hours later, he stopped moving. The cause of his death appeared to be blunt force head injury.

Given the threat that the Covid-19 pandemic poses, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster on March 15. The lockdown that followed is among the strictest in the world, banning the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, prohibiting exercise in public spaces and confining the population to their homes.

Under regulations for the state of disaster — as distinct from a state of emergency — the SANDF is deployed only in a supporting role, to assist the police. Yet it’s the army that now stands accused of one of the darkest moments in SA’s lockdown so far. And it’s still unclear how widespread abuses by the military may be.

Military ombud Vusumuzi Masondo, a retired SANDF lieutenant-general, says he has received 33 complaints since the start of the lockdown. But his investigations into these are still in the early stages, and they’re made difficult by a lack of information — some complaints were made anonymously, while others took the form of videos sent in without additional context or information.

Khosa’s family, seeking a broader remedy, approached the Constitutional Court directly last week for an order ensuring that the Bill of Rights is protected during the lockdown.

In their application, they ask the court to declare that the security forces must observe the minimum force rule in performing their duties. They also ask the court to declare that, even under tougher state of emergency regulations, the right to dignity is absolute, and torture, along with cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, is outlawed.

The Constitutional Court refused the family direct access to it, but the application will be heard by the Pretoria high court. It’s a crucial matter, because the lockdown is far from over and the military deployment on the streets is set to be ramped up dramatically.

Last week Ramaphosa wrote to parliament to inform lawmakers that an additional 73,180 members of the SANDF will be employed during the state of disaster, at a cost of about R4.5bn. Several political parties supported the deployment — though some MPs were more vocal than others in that support. While alleged abuses by the military were condemned, some MPs seemed to blame the public, saying people should not provoke soldiers.

Defence & military veterans minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who seems deeply upset by Khosa’s death, told parliament’s joint standing committee on defence that the initial deployment of 2,820 soldiers will not be enough to meet the challenge of Covid-19.

At this stage, soldiers have been tasked with joining police at roadblocks and on patrols, and assisting in setting up cordons and with searches. They’ve also helped with medical screening, providing essential service delivery such as water supply and safeguarding the country’s borders.

The order for additional deployment, which basically puts the entire SANDF on standby, does not only mean extra boots on the ground. It also applies to reserve and auxiliary forces, and as such will include the military health service and engineers.

Last week the SANDF said a large number of its reserve force members had already been placed on 25-hour standby. But it also appealed to members who have not yet been called up but who have specialist skills — health-care practitioners, chefs, mechanics, pilots and seamstresses, for example — to contact the reserve force offices.

It’s still not known how many soldiers will be deployed at any given time, but it’s clear from the portfolio committee meeting that the SANDF will be doing a lot more than just policing SA’s citizens. It is set, for example, to build field hospitals to boost health-care capacity in the provinces hardest hit by the virus (on top of running existing military hospitals). The aim is for field hospitals to eventually be set up in all provinces and possibly left as legacy projects when the threat of Covid-19 has passed.

This face of the SANDF — as an institution that helps SA’s citizens — is clearly more in line with the orders Ramaphosa gave ahead of the lockdown. On the evening of March 26, he told soldiers in Joburg that "[people] will be looking up to you to give them confidence that everything will be all right; they will be looking unto you not as a force of might but as a force of kindness".

Now, as the number of boots on the ground increases, robust oversight is critical to ensure there are no more accusations like those levelled by the Khosa family.

This is why their court application is so important — it aims to ensure that those charged with enforcing the law cannot ignore people’s rights, no matter what level of lockdown or state of emergency is in place.

"The applicants have lost a loved one to this lockdown brutality," they say in their court papers. "Considering the numerous public reports of other incidents of lockdown brutality, including at least four other deaths, the applicants anticipate that more civilians will suffer the same fate if nothing is done to curb this unbridled brutality by members of the security forces."

As the lockdown shifts between different levels of severity in the coming months, the freedoms allowed under each will become more complex to police. For example, the police and SANDF will now have to enforce a curfew, according to the government’s initial plan to ease the lockdown. But the details of how this will be managed are not yet known.

Keeping authoritarian tendencies in the security forces in check will be critical — particularly as both infections and the death toll rise.

Mapisa-Nqakula has said the SANDF is preparing for the worst — soldiers could be required to remove corpses, as other countries’ armed forces have had to do.

That’s a job that will require immense empathy. More importantly, it will require the trust of a citizenry that might be unsure about whether soldiers are trying to help, or are turning SA into a security state.

The SANDF could not be reached for comment.

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