Distraught Pietermaritzburg mother of three Zandile Nguse lost her teenage son during the July riots last year.
She says her boy, Sbahle Nguse, would have been alive had the South African Police Services (SAPS) kept its promise to serve and protect citizens in communities throughout South Africa.
Sbahle, a 17-year-old Grade 11 pupil at Raisethorpe Secondary School, dreamed of becoming a pilot and helping his family escape life from the informal settlement in which he died on July 12 after being shot at about 1 am.
“During my last conversation with him, he promised that in two years he would take his siblings and me out of the informal settlement. He wanted to be a pilot and was passionate about planes, but being in business was a second option.
“His dream was to see us in a big mansion that we would occupy freely,” said Nguse, who was six months pregnant at the time of the riots and gave birth to a boy on October 21.
She has a 14-year-old daughter and another 10-year-old son, his mom and Nguse (34) lives with her family in Pietermaritzburg’s Khan Road Corner informal settlement, which allegedly came under attack from neighbouring Indian residents, resulting in the death of her eldest son. Two others from the settlement were killed during the skirmish.
On the day Sbahle was shot, the family had to run for cover as people were burning tyres outside their dwelling.
Private security guards fired tear gas at residents in the settlement while gunmen fired random shots in the early morning hours. “I took my daughter and ran down the bank to my sister. I heard my sister scream that Sbahle, looking for me earlier, had been shot in the chest. I went cold.”
Nguse recalled her son being put into a vehicle and driven to the hospital.
“They didn’t want me to see him. I saw him through the windscreen but followed him to the hospital. While the admission was being handled, the doctor called me to prepare to say goodbye to my son.
“Instead, I went outside and prayed that my son would recover because I still had hope that he would still be alive.
“But my sister and family members told me he was gone. It was painful; I can’t even now describe the pain, the nightmare I am still hoping to wake up from.
“To be honest, I am still hoping to wake up and see my son again. But I realise it will not happen, so the only thing that may help me heal is to see justice done to the person who snuffed out my boy’s life.
“He had a bright future and was so full of hope. Whoever took his life must be punished, maybe it will give me peace,” she said.
Although Nguse spoke to the Wits Justice Project, she said she was too distraught to talk about what happened, so her sister, Ziningi, gave testimony to the Human Rights Commission hearings on the incident.
“If I were given a choice, I would ask that God should have taken me instead of my son. He was a good boy, with so much potential and full of hope,” she said before bursting into tears.
But there’s no revenge on her mind. She wants closure, and justice for her “good boy”. “Had the police been present, I know for sure that my son would still be alive,” she said.
Countless stories of police missing in action during the riots, especially in communities like Raisethorpe in Pietermaritzburg and in Phoenix, Durban, have spilled over onto social media platforms and in utterances before the South African Human Rights (SAHRC) hearings on the violence.
Three people died in Raisethorpe, but 38 more are believed to have been killed by vigilante groups in Phoenix, Inanda and Verulam. Throughout the province, 251 people died during the riots.
The SAPS said afterwards that it was investigating 163 cases of murder, while 87 inquest dockets had been opened. Almost 3 000 people were arrested in connection with looting incidents. Cases of murder against the vigilante murders have yet to come before the court, though arrests have been made.
In terms of the Constitution, the SAPS must prevent, combat and investigate crime, maintain public order, protect and secure the inhabitants of the republic and their property, and uphold and enforce the law and be visible.
Throughout the riots, however, the absentee role of the police has been questioned.
After the July unrest, independent researcher David Bruce said there can be little doubt that public order policing to support peaceful protest and address the risk of disorder remains critical. “There is, therefore, a continuing question around ‘how to strengthen policing’. In South Africa, currently, this question needs to be answered against the backdrop of a fiscal crisis, as a result of which state financing for policing — which in the past has been fairly generous — is declining. For reasons related to this, the number of police in state employment is also in decline,” he said.
Bruce said it is widely accepted that there are serious shortcomings with the SAPS. At the same time, it is inadequate to characterise the SAPS in a one-dimensional way. To some degree, it is a functioning police service. “In a context where there were much lower levels of crime and violence, it might even be regarded as reasonably effective,” he said.
Elaborating on the crisis around policing, or the lack of it during the initial phase of the rioting, Gareth Newham, the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said it’s no surprise that SAPS poorly managed the handling of it. The leadership malaise starts at the top with the succession of politically-appointed national commissioners, filtering through the senior management and inevitably throughout the force.
“If you have excellent managers, you have an excellent organisation; poor managers, poor leadership, you have a weak deteriorating organisation. We’ve had eight different people in that top management structure that should not be there,” he said, pointing out that recent figures released by the Public Service Commission show that about a quarter of the top 800 managers in the police force did not have the minimum criteria for their roles. (See box for stats and figures)
But almost six months after the July 2021 the SAPS is still silent on their absence, a media inquiry this week drawing a blank, a spokesperson saying that there’s no police statement on the matter as there are two investigations in this regard — one by the SAHRC and the other by the panel of experts appointed by the state president.
All statements are being made to these two bodies. After their absence, the police remain silent.
Given the overall tardiness — lack of policing and leadership — and slowness in action against vigilantes from the justice system, justice for the likes of Nguse and her son remains a dream.
• Edwin Naidu writes for the Wits Justice Project (WJP). Based in the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand, the WJP investigates human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice related to SA’s criminal justice system.
Gareth Newham, the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies said compounding the problems of absent policing were the SAPS recruitment strategies.
After an initial moratorium, the SAPS began modest levels of formal recruitment in 1998. Three-thousand-nine-hundred-and-forty-eight new SAPS members were recruited in the following four years, averaging less than 1 000 each year.
Then, without any real consideration of the implications, the government decided to dramatically scale-up recruitment. From 2002 to 2012, 123 000 new members were recruited into the SAPS in the 10 years. More than 14 000 were recruited in some subsequent years.
According to Newham, throwing money around is not the best way to address the situation. Data obtained from the SAPS Annual Reports, SAPS Crime Statistics and Treasury Budget Vote between 2012 to 2020 shows that police resourcing has improved in terms of budget and infrastructure. But not the service.
Between 2011/12 and 2019/20, the SAPS bud-get increased by 65,5% from R58,5 billion to R96,8 billion (an additional R38,3 billion). For the period 2021/22 to 2023/24, employee compensation accounts for 77,5% of expenditure (R225,9 billion) — compared to 76,4% between the period 2017/18 to 2019/20.
Thus, police absence during the riots seems to follow a trend of declining policing, according to Newham’s briefing based on the police’s data. For example, SAPS activity trends between 2012 and 2020 reveal that the number of roadblocks dropped 40% from 54 748 to 32 760 — (21 988 fewer roadblocks), cordon and searches dropped by 89% from 25 835 to 2 780 — (23 055 fewer cordon and searches), Air support operations decreased by 82% from 575 to 141 — (434 fewer operations), Vehicles searched dropped by 20% from 7,8 million to 6,2 million — (1,6 million fewer searches), and the number of people searched fell by 92% from 20 188 477 to 1 512 045—(18 676 432 fewer searches).