The third season of Al Jazeera’s award-winning Africa Investigates kicked off last night with Echoes of Apartheid, the result of a five-year investigation by Sunday Times journalists Mzilikazi Wa Afrika and Stephan Hofstatter into how police brutality has spiraled out of control in South Africa.
Almost all categories of police brutality are increasing in South Africa. According to the latest official statistics, in the past year police assaulted 3 711 people, tortured 145, and killed 423 people, with 244 others dying in custody. Torture is up 86%, while civil claims against the police for misconduct totalled R9.5 billion in the past year. The hardest hit provinces are Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Echoes of Apartheid investigates a string of suspect killings allegedly committed by the Cato Manor organized crime unit in Durban, under the ultimate command of provincial Hawks head Major General Johan Booysen.
Wa Afrika and Hofstatter’s investigation has established that four squad members close to Booysen – Willie Olivier, Anton Lockem, Eugene van Tonder, and Paul Mostert – are linked to dozens of suspicious killings stretching back more than a decade. All have been indicted for murder.
In just four years, between 2007 and 2011, the four men were involved in 18 suspect shootings that led to 28 deaths. In six weeks in 2008, the Cato Manor squad killed five leaders of a taxi association and one of their bodyguards in four suspect shootings, now under investigation. Within a year, they had killed its chairman, Bongani Mkhize, and two prominent association members in three more suspect shootings. Mkhize’s family has since won a civil suit against the police.
In Echoes of Apartheid, whistleblower and former police reservist Ari Danikas says the Cato Manor squad routinely tortured suspects, a claim supported by video footage showing members abusing a naked suspect at their offices in 2004.
Danikas says he showed the video to Booysen, who didn’t act on it. “I remember his exact words: ‘They’re killing whites. They’re destroying this country. We have to do something about it and that’s how we’re getting confessions. We get the job done.’” Booysen denies being shown the video.
Echoes of Apartheid also features another video shot by Danikas on his cellphone, which he claims shows the squad waiting for a suspect they shot to bleed to death. Booysen’s girlfriend, Captain Adele Sonnekus, can be heard on the recording telling someone to stomp on the suspect’s stomach to stop him crawling nearer. “The unit was a death squad,” says Danikas. Again, Booysen denies this and claims an ambulance was called for the man.
Danikas turned whistleblower after 10 years of mixing with the unit. He fled South Africa in 2008, in fear for his life from his colleagues.
27 detectives from the Cato Manor squad, including Olivier, Lockem, van Tonder and Moster, are expected to go on trial next year facing 116 charges, including 28 counts of murder. Danikas has refused to return to South Africa to testify, fearing he would be killed.
Last year, in court, Booysen got all charges against him dropped. He was also cleared in a disciplinary hearing. But in September, he was again suspended for related offences. This week that suspension has also been dropped.
Africa Investigates is a groundbreaking Al Jazeera series that gives some of Africa’s best journalists the opportunity to pursue high-level investigative targets across the continent – using their unique perspective and local knowledge to put corruption, exploitation and abuse under the spotlight. Previous documentaries in the series have won One World Media and Mohamed Amin Africa Media awards.
Echoes of Apartheid repeats on Al Jazeera English on 20 November at 04:30, 21 November at 17:30, and 22 November at 06:30 CAT.