Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS​
Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS​

In refusing to distance herself from the shameful whitewash presented by an SA National Defence Force (SANDF) “board of inquiry” into the death of Collins Khosa, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has taken a high-stakes gamble. As anger mounts, it’s a political gamble that may just backfire on her.

Khosa has been the highest-profile victim of army brutality during the Covid-19 lockdown. He died of “blunt force head injury,” accompanied by haemorrhaging in the brain, an inquest found, hours after being assaulted by soldiers on Good Friday.

Yet remarkably, last week an army “board of inquiry” chaired by Brig Gen Viscount Ngcobo declared: “The death of Mr Khosa was not caused by the SANDF nor the Joburg Metro Police Department.”

It smacked of an obvious cover-up. And it evoked memories of the clumsiness of the apartheid-era security police who would torture activists to death, then claim they’d “slipped on a bar of soap”. Everyone knew it was a lie, but the very obviousness of the falsehood was itself an act of intimidation, designed to flag contempt for the victim and his family.

Today, SA is a democracy, with a bill of rights that outlaws extrajudicial killing and torture. And yet for the SANDF “board of inquiry” to have cleared those soldiers, while inexplicably ignoring the version of events attested to by Khosa’s partner, Nomsa Montsha, speaks to a chilling disdain for these rights.

There are, of course, echoes of the Khosa tragedy in the US, where the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis last week has sparked protests in 75 cities. The rioting has got so bad that attorney-general William Barr decried the damage as “domestic terrorism”. 

Yet in Minneapolis, there has been some accountability: the policeman, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with murder. In SA, by contrast, as Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser points out, “the SANDF refused for six weeks to suspend the soldiers who assaulted Khosa until he died”.

Wikus Steyl, the lawyer for Khosa’s family, told the FM yesterday: “We do not accept the report, or the investigation. It is ridiculous for the SANDF to find themselves not guilty without interviewing the family.” Parts of the report, he says, “are simply unbelievable”.

In Montsha’s affidavit, she reports that when two soldiers arrived at Khosa’s house on Good Friday, they “did not take kindly” to him answering them back and evidently failing to grovel before their authority.

So they took him outside onto the street to teach him a lesson.

First, they poured beer on his head, then one soldier “held his hands behind his back, while the other choked him”; they “slammed him against a cement wall”; they “hit him with the butt of a machine gun” and they “kicked, slapped and punched him”.

Soon after they left, he began vomiting and couldn’t stand. Within hours, he was dead.

According to the inquest report, done by a pathologist on April 14, “the cause of death of Mr Khosa is blunt force head injury” accompanied by a “subarachnoid haemorrhage” in the brain.

Yet if you read the SANDF “board of inquiry” report, you’ll get another impression entirely.

That report said the soldiers began having an “argument” with Khosa and his brother-in-law, Thabiso Muvhango, after which “the two men were forced to comply”.

“The force used was pushing and clapping in order for the men to comply with the instruction,” they said. In their implausible telling of it, “Khosa was conscious and healthy when the security forces left.”

Credibility on the line

Last week, Mapisa-Nqakula was asked about the inquiry’s findings, and she said she wouldn’t comment “because it’s still under investigation, and in terms of the court, it’s, in fact, a sub judice matter”.

It was a lamentable response. By not distancing herself from the whitewash, Mapisa-Nqakula is playing South Africans for gullible fools.

After all, which sounds more likely to you: that Khosa’s death by “blunt force trauma” was due to soldiers merely “pushing and clapping” him? Or was it more likely to be due to the torture and assault that Montsha describes?

Mapisa-Nqakula ought to have realised what was at stake – nothing less than her own credibility and the legitimacy of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s lockdown – and should have insisted that the board of inquiry, at the very least, speak to Khosa’s family and the witnesses.

But in the absence of that, for that board to have so lamentably failed to do its job and for Mapisa-Nqakula to have tacitly sanctioned it shows just how ill-equipped they are to serve in our democracy’s government.

In The Sunday Times, editor S’thembiso Msomi compared the Khosa situation with that of Floyd, arguing that SA is “fortunate that the [Khosa] injustice has not resulted in the kind of anger and protest we have seen in the US”.

For Msomi, the key lies in ensuring “those responsible are ultimately held accountable for Khosa’s death”. 

There are, of course, many dynamics to George’s murder, and much great analysis on it. This includes from The New Yorker, Politico and even SA’s Trevor Noah in a clip that’s been watched more than 4-million times).

Talk show host and writer Eusebius McKaiser wrote that our quiet response to Khosa’s death “shows that we, including many of us as black citizens, struggle to take seriously the right to life and the right not to be tortured by our own state”.

There are, at least, a number of online petitions – including this one, demanding Justice for Collins Khosa – which have already collected more than 10,000 signatures

Steyl is also preparing to challenge the SANDF report on behalf of Khosa’s family. It’s unlikely to be a process that will reflect well on the army, or its political head.

In thinking that South Africans were going to accept a whitewash timidly, it seems that Mapisa-Nqakula may have misread the mood.

If she and the soldiers involved aren’t held responsible, it will cause deep damage to the psyche of a nation which already believes there is scant accountability for the politically protected.

At the end of Montsha’s affidavit, she says the incident has led to her losing “complete faith in the security forces, and the SANDF in particular”.

She’s not the only one. If you want to see what happens when that scepticism becomes more widespread, take a look at any number of US cities right now.

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.

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