Just before 9 p.m. on August 26, 2020, the Julies family, working class South Africans, cleaned up after dinner at their home in Eldorado Park, a suburb in southern Johannesburg, amid jokes and music. One of the most popular family members was Nathaniel Julies, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome. Nathaniel's condition affected his speech, but he was a great comedian with non-verbal gestures alone.
After dinner, Nathaniel went to get a packet of biscuits from a nearby "tuck shop," an informal supermarket run from a private home. He loved cookies and his neighbors often bought them for him. After getting dessert, he saw a police car parked nearby with the lights on. He approached the van and stood nearby.
Three policemen – Sgts. Vorster Netshiongolo, Simon Ndyalvane, and Constable Caylene Whiteboy of the Eldorado Police Station, just over a mile away, were conducting a random patrol. (Two of the officers were black, while Whiteboy and the Julies family were "colored" in South African terms.)
Bridget Harris, the mother of Nathaniel Julies, is pictured at her home in Eldorado Park, a suburb in southern Johannesburg, on October 12, 2020. Behind her is a portrait of her son that was given to the family by followers.
On October 8, 2020, a man walks past the Tuck Shop in Eldorado Park, where Nathaniel was buying cookies before he was shot by South African police. Patrick Egwu photos for foreign policy
At around 9 p. m. a shot went out. An unarmed Nathaniel had been shot dead by Whiteboy, one of the officers. According to four witnesses, he was murdered at close range with a shotgun without provocation. An autopsy report said Nathaniel suffered stab wounds to his chest and abdomen that matched pellets fired from a gun.
It was a murder that shocked South Africa and sparked protests across the country – far from the first in the country.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) is one of the most brutal police systems in the democratic world. A history of police brutality and human rights abuses in the country can be traced back to the legacy of apartheid, when police were used to dominate and discriminate black communities and hunt down enemies of the regime. But the legacy of brutality has survived the country's transition to multiracial democracy.
Former police officers said there had been improvements in policing in the first five years of democracy, including a clear focus on community police, community relationship building, demilitarization and human rights education. But from 2000 everything changed.
The civil servants' training period went from two years to just one year, and there was massive corruption in the recruitment process – with positions often open for sale. For the first time, police commissioners were political representatives without the appropriate training or experience to run a country's police force. From 2000 to 2017, South African presidents and their successors appointed national police commissioners, largely because of their perceived loyalty rather than their competence.
"You are only appointed to act in the political and personal interests of the president," said Gareth Newham, director of the judiciary and prevention program at the Institute for Security Studies.
In June 2012, for example, Riah Phiyega, a social worker with no previous police experience, was appointed National Police Commissioner by former South African President Jacob Zuma under Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa. August 2012 saw the deadliest use of force by the country's security forces against the civilian population since 1976. 34 miners striking were killed that month, but not a single officer was prosecuted for the murders.
The Marikana Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate the massacre, found Phiyega guilty and declared: "Running a police service is not just a managerial task, it requires a high level of competence in police operations." But it didn't get any better.
According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), a state surveillance agency, more than 42,000 criminal charges were filed against the police between 2012 and 2019, including rape, murder and torture.
"That number is small compared to the actual level of brutality that takes place on the streets of South Africa every day," Newham said.
"They're not necessarily trained, but they should be," said Maj. Gen. Chris Botha, who joined the South African Police Service in 1972 and is now a university professor after retiring in June 2006. As an instrument in a constitutional democracy based on the rule of law, you must because of the damage it does cause constant training and retraining. It is the person using it that does the damage. It doesn't work alone. "
During his time at SAPS, Botha played a key role in the development and implementation of training courses as head of executive and management development. However, he said there are serious problems with the process.
Like other experts in the use of force, he said that minimal force is the first principle. He added, “Cops have to speak first and then use soft weapons until you can finally use live ammunition when you need to. This principle is the main thing, because policing is not about being the boss, it is about serving and protecting people. "
Botha said police officers hold people's lives in their hands and need training in how to use their rifles. Your duty is to protect life, not to take it.
“Children with Down syndrome are very special people and you need to be trained to deal with them. In ancient Afrikaans, which I come from, we referred to them as "God's own children," he added.
After the violence came the cover-up.
Bridget Harris, Nathaniel's mother, believes Nathaniel was shot because his disability made it difficult for him to answer the officers when they tried to question him.
The force of the shot threw Nathaniel under an abandoned truck nearby. Whiteboy and the other two cops dragged him into their van and quickly withdrew with sirens wailing. Nathaniel died before they reached Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg and told medical workers that he was involved in a fight between rival gangs.
That was a lie, said Bridget. Nathaniel wasn't involved in drugs or gangs – and his disability would have made it almost impossible for him to be. Instead, he was a loved and protected figure in the community and the local school he attended.
Nathaniel's case is not an isolated one.
IPID – the police guard who investigates police crime in the country – investigated the murders and deaths in custody of at least 39 children between April 2012 and March 2018. Most died from police actions, including excessive or use of violence. Only the murder of 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza resulted in a criminal conviction.
The outrage over Nathaniel's death was enough to cause a rare arrest, however. On August 28, 2020, two of the three officers were arrested and charged in Protea District Court, and the third a few days later.
According to IPID, the weapon used to kill Nathaniel is banned with banned ammunition. Two of the officers – Ndyalvane and Whiteboy – are currently facing four charges, including willful murder, the dumping of a firearm in public and the possession of illegal ammunition. The third officer, Netshiongolo, is accused of beating the ends of justice for allegedly hiding evidence.
The 46-year-old Ndyalvane, popularly known as the "Scorpion", is known in the Eldorado community for his brutality. Court documents showed he had two previous convictions for assault and one for malicious property damage. This is not uncommon in the South African police force, where officers often continue to serve after convictions on such allegations.
"He is known for his brutality towards innocent people," said Lazane Mickmaster, one of the witnesses to Nathaniel's death, who lives in the Eldorado Park apartments. “The last time he shot someone in Freedom Park. We need to live up to Nathaniel and make sure (the accused cops) pay for their crimes. “Mickmaster was referring to an earlier incident in which Ndyalvane allegedly shot a crowd who consumed alcohol during the lockdown of South Africa in Freedom Park.
Former SAPS officers told me that there are critical gaps in the officers' training. Whiteboy, the police officer who pulled the trigger, admitted during one of her appearances in court for a bail motion in September 2020 that she thought she had a rubber bullet in her rifle when she shot Nathaniel.
Whiteboy said she used the same rifle with rubber bullets earlier in the day to disperse protesters in Freedom Park.
"Since joining the police force, I can't say or argue at what point I didn't know the type of bullet in my gun," said Botha. “In my training I know what a living sphere is. What (Whiteboy) is saying is unacceptable to me. If you don't even know your gun contains a living bullet, it indicates that you have probably moved away from gun training. "
Themba Masuku, program manager at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, said the shooting incident raised concerns about police training. "This statement is bizarre, but it also points to the systemic problem within SAPS," he said, referring to Whiteboy's statements in court. "If it's true that she doesn't know the bullet in her rifle, it shows how (poorly) police officers are trained in the firearms they carry."
A preliminary assessment of the South African Basic Police Development Program found that “one of the major problems is the recruitment process, which allows recruits to join the police force, earn a salary and work in a police station without a training guarantee within a reasonable one Period for these recruits. Many of the current apprentices worked in police stations for up to two years before being trained. "
There are currently 10 police training academies in South Africa – but despite repeated attempts, I have not been able to get access to any of them for interviews.
That’s no surprise. Most of the SAPS activities are secret and the institution has no tradition of openness to journalists or researchers wishing to enter its colleges or training facilities, which is compounded by the growing distrust between the public and SAPS.
"I can't tell you what happens every day in police schools because I am usually not admitted there, even if I have a background and who I am," said Botha.
Botha said when he did a study on the emotional intelligence of SAPS employees a few years ago, it took 18 months to approve his application for college entry, despite being a senior employee at SAPS.
"The government is oversensitive and afraid of criticism and does not want to take anyone to places where they are exposed," said Botha. The situation was the same, he said under apartheid.
Structural defects exacerbate the problem. An August 2019 report showed that the shortage of ammunition prevented officers from completing their firearms proficiency tests.
A submission to Parliament in 2015 by Dianne Kohler Barnard, Shadow Secretary of the Police and a member of the Democratic Alliance, found that 40,000 of 194,852 working members of the SAPS had failed or did not have firearms competence certificates.
The residents of Eldorado told me that they don't want police in their community. Newham, who has worked with police for two decades, said the police instinctively resort to violence when people fail to act.
Indeed, Nathaniel's case is hardly isolated. During the COVID-19 lockdown alone, 11 people were killed by police brutality, according to IPID. On March 27, the first day of the national lockdown in South Africa, Petrus Miggels, a Cape Town man resident in the Western Cape Province, was killed by police enforcing the lockdown rules. Miggels had gone to buy alcohol for a neighbor when he was attacked by police with a hammer. He died an hour later at his home in Ravensmead on Cape Flats.
IPID, which investigates deaths and personal injuries, cleared police officers of any wrongdoing because Miggels died of heart failure – despite the fact that it was caused by the beatings.
An IPID statement said 588 complaints are being investigated, including torture and assault, related to allegations made during the lockdown.
"What we have seen in the use of excessive force by security forces in South Africa and across the continent is not new, but the pandemic has really exacerbated the problems that already existed, allowing a culture of impunity to flourish," said Cindy Chungong, regional director for Africa at International Alert, a UK-based nonprofit committed to breaking cycles of violence and building sustainable peace.
SAPS officers are rarely prosecuted for murder or excessive use of force against citizens. In some cases, officials found guilty receive minor disciplinary sanctions. shielded from the police hierarchy; suspended; or warnings of serious crimes such as torture, killing of unarmed citizens, or human rights violations.
According to Newham, 95 percent of IPID investigations into the use of force by police officers end without sanctions against the officers.
"Police officers don't think they would ever be held accountable for what they do on the street unless a person dies and there is a big outcry, but it happens very rarely," he said.
In theory, every aspect of policing is regulated in the country. Every year the police force introduces or issues new rules of procedure – but they are seldom followed. "The training was a victim of that bad leadership and inadequate political orientation, and that is the source of the problem today," Newham said. "The training manual and instructions for SAPS members look great on paper, but not in reality as many trainers don't believe in what they teach themselves."
Masuku wants a different approach to policing. Recently, his organization has advocated the need for stricter legislation on the use of force. Right now the law is broken and confusing. For example, the South African Police Services Act provides for the use of "minimum violence" while the Criminal Procedure Act provides that an officer can use "lethal force" in the event of arrest. The Correctional Services Act is more lenient and provides for the use of force as a last resort.
Chungong argued that this is not enough, and ending police brutality, especially the use of force, begins with re-conceptualizing the roles of the police and other security forces. "If we see the police primarily as a repressive force or something that controls the population or protects the interests of a particular group, we will always have abuses and conflicts with communities," Chungong said.
There are community police forums across the country, working with civilians to fight crime and create an atmosphere of peace and security, highlighting partnership building and a problem-solving approach that addresses community needs.
However, today Bridget told me that children in Nathaniel's neighborhood who played with him before he died are now scared of the police. When they hear a siren booming or a police car approaches, they run into their homes and start crying.
When I asked about the police officers who killed her son, she looked at the picture of Nathaniel in the corner of the room. "I have forgiven them, but justice has to take its course," she said and fell back gently on the couch, sobbing.
Bridget was silent for about a minute. She stared at one of the pictures of Nathaniel in the living room. He smiled – as always. After a few seconds she averted her face.