By Vanessa Burger 26 July 2015

Allegations of police collusion, torture, official-issue firearms used in assassinations, malicious charges and failed investigations – a pattern emerges 

Latest victim of alleged police torture, Richard Nzama appeared in Umlazi Magistrate’s Court on Friday 24 July on charges of attempted murder, alleged theft of a cellphone and possession of an illegal firearm. The prosecutor fought a desperate four-hour battle to get the bail hearing delayed for the maximum seven-day period and Nzama handed over to the tender mercy of his investigating officer – a member of the SAPS Provincial Task Team deployed for the independent investigation of Glebelands cases, and one of the three officers accused of torturing him. Nzama’s bail hearing was eventually remanded to Monday 27 July. Due to fears for his safety and on the basis of supporting evidence of assault contained in his medical report, the magistrate ordered that in the meantime, he be held in solitary confinement at Westville Prison and prohibited access, even by his investigating officer. She also ruled that Nzama was to be provided free medical attention and psychiatric assessment. The prosecutor and police determined the bail hearing should be delayed to verify Nzama’s address, personal details, and check if he had prior convictions. They seemed confident that Monday’s presiding magistrate is likely to support them and their intention to oppose bail.

Nzama stood in the dock, a broken man. His face was swollen and he wore a neck-brace. He moved with difficulty and was visibly in great pain. The state doctor’s medical report attested to the horrific violence to which he had been subjected. A tyre inner-tube had allegedly been forced over his face and he had been repeatedly suffocated. He was assaulted with a stick, beaten about the head, chest, arms and private parts. His teeth were loose. The report stated,

“They pointed myself with guns in the forest [Nzama claimed he had been taken to a deserted, thickly bushed area near Isipingo Beach]. They said they will kill me and throw [me] in [the] river.”

Also documented were the officers’ attempts to get Nzama to make a run for it – an old apartheid police tactic used to justify shooting prisoners ‘evading arrest.’ Most disturbing about his appearance, however, were his eyes. Bloodshot and swollen almost closed, his eyes mirrored the extreme psychological and emotional trauma to which he had been subjected. He was clearly still suffering shock, but the pain, distrust and utter withdrawal reflected in his eyes betrayed a deep psychological hurt, far greater than his physical injuries – damage that usually lasts a lifetime for victims of this type of torture. The doctor concluded Nzama had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse by three police officers.

In court the prosecutor had claimed Nzama’s brutal assault and the threat of murder by his arresting officers was not relevant to the charges. He argued that Nzama was a flight risk, a danger to witnesses and that his residence could not be proved. According to the magistrate, the docket did not contain other witnesses’ statements – or even initially a complainant until the prosecutor was ordered to fill in the name. Nzama has been resident at the hostel for over 30 years and had been a block chairman before the KZN Premier dissolved the block committee structures.

Nzama’s circumstances follow what has become a disturbing trend for members of the Glebelands community currently under fire, seemingly, from hitmen and police alike. Nzama was the target of an assassination attempt on 9 August 2014. He survived the shooting but his injuries left him with a permanent disability – he has only partial movement in his right hand. Although he identified his attacker and provided comprehensive statements to the police, incomprehensibly, he waited for seven months before receiving a case number, the investigation seemed riddled with irregularities and the perpetrator was eventually acquitted in court on 14 March 2015. Nzama then began receiving death threats from the Glebelands’ killers. He was also identified to known hostel hitmen and several times he had to flee public areas to save his life. His attacker remained at large at Glebelands and was regularly witnessed in association with the resident warlord. In May, after Nzama expressed dissatisfaction at the way his case was handled, a complaint was lodged with the Umlazi Cluster Commander and Provincial Commissioner, who were also notified of the threats on Nzama’s life. The Cluster Commander’s report’s findings bore little similarity to Nzama’s account of the police’s actions. On 12 May, another attempt was made on his life. Shortly thereafter, Nzama was informed that the police were looking for him. He was justifiably fearful as many instances of fabricated cases had been recorded by the affected community. Enquiries revealed that members of the newly appointed Glebelands Provincial Task Team wanted to question him, however nothing appeared to come of the matter. After receiving continued threats, Nzama’s requested his name and details were forwarded, together with others who had received consistent intimidation and were believed to head the notorious hit list, to the Provincial Commissioner and Head of the Provincial Task Team on 7 June, with an urgent request for police protection. The Task Team failed to follow up on information provided, failed to deploy static units at hotspots and refused to visit residents at the hostel who wished to provide statements. It is simply too dangerous for many to move around. On 22 July at around 23h00, members of the same team arrested Nzama for attempted murder, an incident which the police claim took place a month earlier. Nzama reported he was tortured, assaulted and that the officers threatened to kill him. Bail is being opposed. Nzama’s disability, sustained during last year’s attempted assassination, which left him with limited mobility in his right hand, was sufficiently severe to prevent him from operating power tools and he lost his job. It is inconceivable that Nzama would even be able to hold a firearm in that hand, let alone pull the trigger.

Nzama is not the first Glebelands resident targeted simultaneously by hitmen and police. Of the seven incidents of police torture recorded, three of which are being investigated by the Independent Policing Investigative Directorate, three complainants have since been assassinated. Thandayiphe Cwele, gunned down on 19 July at Glebelands entrance, reported he was severely beaten and teargassed by officers who insisted he hand over an illegal firearm. Cwele never owned a gun – legal or otherwise. Hostel thugs also tried to kill Cwele in September 2014. During the struggle, his attackers gun reportedly went off, injuring Cwele. The police charged him with attempted murder, for which he was eventually acquitted. This year, on the 8 May, Cwele was detained by police again, this time for armed robbery. They failed to charge him and he was released from jail after being incarcerated over a weekend. Just over two months later, Cwele was killed in a hit, rumour has it, by the same hitman who killed Sipho Ndovela outside the Umlazi Court on 18 May. Ndovela claimed he was assaulted by the police on 29 April 2014 while they searched him room for illegal firearms. They did not find a gun and Ndovela reported that the officers trashed his room. The warlord’s thugs evicted him a month later, an incident for which Ndovela was later accused of murder. He was acquitted of these charges but shot dead by hitmen as he left court. A month earlier police had been requested to provide Ndovela with witness protection as he had been warned he would not see court. They failed to respond. As a key witness in another case, on the day he was killed, Ndovela was to have provided a supplementary statement to police regarding the hostel warlord’s alleged involvement in the murder of Fikile Siyephu on 15 February. The warlord allegedly held a party on the night Ndovela was killed. It was rumoured that an Umlazi SAPS officer attended the celebration.

Of the 20 incidents of police torture (7 cases), assault (8 incidents) and damage to property (5 reports) reported to human rights researchers; eleven complainants also stated attempts had been made on their lives, they had been evicted or received death threats by hostel thugs. Ten claimed they were also targets of malicious arrest – almost all were accused of possession of illegal firearms and bail was routinely opposed. Nineteen of the twenty who alleged police brutality or criminal action of some form, had also received threats from the warlords hitmen.

Thulani Kathi claimed to have witnessed the police working from a list of names shortly before he was tubed. The names of those targeted by the warlord’s thugs are said to be on a hit list. Can it be purely coincidental that the same individuals appear to be victimized by both parties?

It would seem the Glebelands killing fields have come to symbolize the utter collapse of our criminal justice system – manipulated to serve the political and economic interests of the powerful and well-connected. Meanwhile Richard Nzama’s life and liberty hangs in the balance, another victim of the perversion of justice.

Issued by: Vanessa Burger: Community Activist: 0828477766 bhejane068@gmail.com

Photo: Nzama’s disabled hand

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