Tortured Townships

How Police Brutality Returned to South Africa

Police stand behind burning barricades in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township during protests over service delivery which includes housing and sanitation, June 1, 2010. (Mark Wessels / Courtesy Reuters)

On June 28, 2008, when Thapelo heard that his son had been stabbed, he rushed home from his job at the local airport in Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was a still, warm winter evening. When he got to his home in the township of Motherwell, his wife was already at the hospital and the house was locked. In his haste to leave work, Thapelo (who asked that his name be changed for his protection) had forgotten his phone, so he climbed through an unlocked first-story window to retrieve his daughter’s. He was calling his wife from their yard when a police car passed. The officers stopped to question him, and in his desperation to find out if his son was alive, he made the mistake of ignoring them.

Thapelo woke around midnight, his body aching and covered with bruises and cuts. He was in the back of a police truck at the Motherwell police station, soaking wet, bloody, and covered in mud. “My clothes were soaked up, my jacket was soaked up, I had scars all over my body,” he said. “There was no reason; I’m not a criminal.” Later, he would be charged with malicious damage to police property, which he denies vehemently: he was in his own yard when he was arrested and tortured by the police.

That night, Thapelo experienced firsthand the shoddy, often brutal state of the South African criminal justice system. The abuse was all the more galling given his family’s history. During the popular resistance to apartheid, his mother worked as a courier for the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). She disappeared when Thapelo was a child; he didn’t see her again for 28 years. Before she died, she told him about her abuse by the apartheid government, lifting her top to show him the scar where police had cut off her right breast. When the same ANC that his mother and so many other South Africans had sacrificed to fight for finally came to power in 1994, such abuses were supposed to stop. As Thapelo well knows, they did not. 

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

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