The most horrific police brutality targeting ordinary citizens is a deeply distressing reality in ‘liberated’ South Africa. There is no justice for those who fall victim to these agents of state terror –reminiscent of the dark days of apartheid. How long will this go on?
This is the story of Sbu.
The purpose in telling Sbu's story is not to present a statistical account of dates, times, places and events that could be used in court. That will never happen because Sbu cannot take his case to court. For Sbu and millions like him in South Africa, justice and reality have never met.
Sbu shares a cramped room in a strife-torn, low cost housing complex with two women. One is HIV+.
‘The police came around midnight and said they were looking for a man sleeping with two women. They told me to come outside to answer some questions. They shouted at me and asked me why I was sleeping with an HIV+ woman. They said terrible things. I ask myself, even now, how did these police know she was HIV+?’
Sbu's wrists were then secured with cable ties and he was taken to an open area where he was bent backwards over the bonnet of a police car. Two officers restrained his legs and a plastic bag was forced over his head. He was asked repeatedly who owned firearms in his area.
In between bouts of suffocation, Sbu told the police he did not know anyone with guns and did not own one himself. The beating continued.
‘They punched me in my chest and kicked me, especially in my private parts. They kept putting the bag over my head - I collapsed - I think three times.’
Sbu also lost control of his bowels and bladder.
The psychological effects of this method of torture - 'tubing', favoured by the apartheid regime and similar to the 'waterboarding' technique made infamous by CIA agents at Guatanamo Bay - can last a lifetime.
According to Cristian Correa (an attorney and former secretary of the National Commission of Political Imprisonment and Torture in Chile) in his paper, ‘Waterboarding Prisoners and Justifying Torture: Lessons for the US from the Chilean Experience,’ victims of ‘the devastating psychological effects of this method of torture report all, or some, of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: insecurity, fear, humiliation, worthlessness, shame, guilt, depression, anxiety and hopelessness. They can become irritable and introverted, develop substance dependency and are unable to establish interpersonal relationships.’
Correa also states the technique was ‘used to destroy prisoners’ will, dignity and moral, psychological and physical resolve.’ He goes on to suggest that the real purpose of ‘the indiscriminate use of torture is to destroy people's will to oppose the regime and give up hope of a more egalitarian society.’
In Chile, where the practice was widely used under Pinochet's dictatorship on political prisoners, Correa documented that it ‘destroyed social networks and seriously affected people's ability to trust each other, making the victims feel isolated, betrayed and capable of betrayal.’
Or as George Orwell put it in his prophetic work: 1984’, ‘It imposed fear on society as a whole.’
So what place does the imposition of fear have in South Africa's current democracy? Is it an indication of an increasingly paranoid state's attempt to subjugate the people - particularly the restless poor?
It worked on Sbu's community…for now.
After an hour and a half, the police took a break. But one officer, a woman, returned to Sbu, who was still bent backwards over the vehicle's bonnet.
‘Why are you so stubborn and do not tell us about the guns,’ she demanded and kicked him repeatedly in his private parts and knees.
Sbu was not arrested and eventually released. He could have reported his torture to the police - although now seen as his tormentors - or the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).
He did neither. The police had told him, ‘We know where you live, we'll be back. Anytime’
Sbu also didn't report it to the police because he had been previously arrested a few months earlier. The evidence to support these original, minor charges has yet to materialise although Sbu was refused bail three times and his case since remanded several times more.
It seems Sbu had been arrested because of his association with someone who was witness to an earlier alleged case of police torture. He believes that this relationship and certain powerful political enemies amongst his community were behind his arrest.
Sbu's bail conditions determined he was to vacate the area. But Sbu could not leave. He had nowhere else to go. Low cost housing is in very short supply.
And if he left, the two women with whom he shared a room would have remained unprotected in a dangerous area. So Sbu had stayed in violation of his bail conditions. If he reported his torture, he would be sent directly to jail.
Sbu also didn't report the incident because he did not have time. Four hours after his assault, he had to be at work.
Because of his previous arrest, refusal of bail, frequent court appearances and continued unrest in the area, Sbu's employer had lost patience with his frequent absences and told Sbu he must choose between his home and his job.
Sbu could not afford the transport costs to get to his current place of employment if he moved far enough away from the area in which he felt threatened. So Sbu stayed and went to work. Employment is very hard to come by.
Sbu could also not see a doctor because that would have meant more time off work. And to provide evidence of police brutality a doctor's report is essential.
Sbu could not urinate for two days. He says it is still ‘not easy.’
Because of his subsequent court appearance, Sbu has since been suspended from work. His disciplinary hearing is next week. A day later he must return again to court. He is terrified the police will revisit him, so has vacated his home. He will most likely lose his job.
The scale of such systemic injustice and its broader social impact far outweighs any individual, and as yet, unproven criminal act, and remains entirely invisible to the public and those not directly involved.
Today Sbu's bruises are gone. He smiles sheepishly and jokes with his friends about his ordeal. He seems quite normal. Just like the veneer of normality our country wears so proudly.
That is the great thing about tubing - it leaves no visible scars.
[*Sbu is not his real name. Although certain aspects of his story have been altered to protect his identity and due to court proceedings in progress, events outlined present what is understood by the author to be a factual account of the incident as described by Sbu and community members. All details regarding his case have been recorded.">
* Vanessa Burger has a background in advertising, marketing and communications and has worked part time as a freelance travel writer and photographer. She is currently a Dennis Brutus Community Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society based at the UKZN, a provincial member of the Democratic Left Front and Right2Know Campaign and works closely with organisations such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, uBunye Bamahostel, the Poor Flat Dwellers Movement and the KZN Violence Monitor.
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