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Minister of police Bheki Cele. Picture: BUSINESS DAY/FREDDY MAVUNDA
Minister of police Bheki Cele. Picture: BUSINESS DAY/FREDDY MAVUNDA

On Thursday July 29, Operation Show Your Receipt came to Asiyindawo in the Madlala settlement, near KwaZulu-Natal’s Lamontville. It was the second time the police had appeared in the area to reclaim goods looted during the recent unrest. This time, when they were done, they would leave behind the body of 32-year-old Zamekile Shangase.

Writing in New Frame, Chris Makhaye tells how Shangase and other Asiyindawo residents watched as police and soldiers – apparently no search warrant in sight – forced open locks and broke into people’s shacks. When the community became agitated, shouting and in some instances apparently throwing stones, the security forces opened fire with live ammunition.

Shangase, neighbours say, was shot in the chest and the shoulder; her horrified partner Mongezi Ngwadla looked on as she drew her last breath.

Her body lay there in a pool of blood for hours before she was taken away by the police,” Makhaye writes.

A week earlier, Operation Show Your Receipt was in full swing on the other side of the country, too.

Madupi Motholo is a resident of Boiketlong, an informal settlement in Sebokeng, Gauteng. Out of work as a result of the pandemic, the former construction worker bought himself two chainsaws in May. He used the equipment to chop firewood, which he sold to the local community. It was the only income he had to support his three children and extended family.

When the police came knocking at 6am on July 22, they spied Motholo’s chainsaws. “They insisted that I got them during the looting,” he told City Press’s Mduduzi Nonyane. “Even though I showed them the receipt [pictured in the story and dated May 25], it couldn’t convince them that I am not a criminal.”

The officers made off with the chainsaws – as well as groceries and baby formula he’d bought for his daughter the month before.

In that same raid, the police barged into the shack that Seipati Faku, 63, Amanda Lebethe, 70, and Florence Sebata, 67, share with their four grandchildren, demanding receipts for groceries and blankets they had bought through their stokvel.

They entered without asking and started searching,” Faku told Nonyane. “They saw items on the kitchen table and just took them. New blankets we bought last month and placed on top of the wardrobe were also taken, dusty as the covers were.”

Then there’s the Magubane family in Pietermaritzburg. Late last Monday, the police reportedly forced their way onto the family property in search of looted goods – apparently the second such event, the family told Ground Up’s Nompendulo Ngubane.

The police officers allegedly physically assaulted two of the family members, before firing rubber bullets at them. They took a heater for which the family could not supply a receipt – but which they say they purchased in January.

When one of the Magubanes asked to tie up the family dog to keep it out the way, the officers apparently shot the dog, too.

When the family tried to lay a charge at Plessislaer police station, they say the police would not assist them (some of those who had allegedly participated in the raid were present). They only managed to lay a charge on their return the next day.

A pattern of impunity

Abuse of position among SA’s police service has a long tail.

Take, for example, this disturbing report, published by Viewfinder’s Daneel Knoetze amid the saccharine consumerism of Women’s Month. According to stats from the Independent Police Investigative Unit (Ipid), almost 1,000 rapes were registered against police officers between 2012 and March 2020.

The details are horrific. A 17-year-old was in 2014 threatened with arrest on spurious grounds, told that she would be taken to Joburg where she would be raped by more than 15 men, and then raped by the officer in his police van. (It appears there was never an internal disciplinary process against him, and that officer has so far served just three nights in prison.)

Women raped while in police custody; women raped while under arrest; a teenager raped inside the Montagu police station’s trauma room; the rape of a student walking home; the rape of minors.

The rape of women and girls who had specifically sought out help from the police.

As Western Cape Ipid head Thabo Leholo told Knoetze, “some of these rape cases derive from opportunism, because of the power that the police have and the abuse that they are able to mete out against the powerless – people who are in their custody or people who have come to them”.

For all that, there’s an infuriating lack of justice. Only 29 people have so far been imprisoned for the 964 rape cases registered against police officers. 

In part, that’s due to a backlog of forensic data. There are also the perennial issues plaguing Ipid, as Knoetze has documented so meticulously over the years: underfunding, the hollowing out of law enforcement and the manipulation of statistics, for example (this investigation provides a comprehensive overview).

But there’s also little internal disciplinary action in the police itself. For those 964 cases registered, just 50 police officers have been dismissed from service. As a graphic accompanying Knoetze’s story chillingly puts it: “Around nine out of every 10 SA police officers accused of rape remain on the job.”

Beware politicians and their ‘platitudes’

If a weak and underresourced police watchdog encourages the abuse of power by failing to hold errant officers accountable, then politicians like our fedora-wearing, reshuffle-dodging police minister encourage overreach by their own oblivious or inflammatory actions.

It was, after all, Bheki Cele who planted the absurd “show us your receipts” seed during the ban on the sale of tobacco products, and revived it in the wake of the looting. Look how that’s turning out.

It was Cele who paraded the beaches of the Western Cape after yet another ban on the outdoors, halting the work of a film crew that had been given the green light by the Cape Town authorities. (The city council later claimed victory in an out-of-court settlement.)

It was Cele who threatened in April that the police would “destroy the infrastructure where liquor is being sold” – a comment that high court judge Hans Fabricius found to be “extremely irresponsible” at best.

It is this kind of performative politics of policing – of which we have seen so much in SA over the years – that does little to promote responsible and humane law enforcement. If anything, it simply fuels the fire of impunity. 

De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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