Inigo Gilmore SOUTH AFRICA 22 JULY 2013 01:38
Investigating a number of violent cases of police brutality, including the Marikana shootings and the killing of Andries Tatane, INIGO GILMORE uncovered evidence that was profoundly disturbing. Worse, it’s evidence that’s in plain sight – and yet doesn’t seem to have led to any convictions.
The day was April 13 2011 and when Tatane's dying moments were shown, prime time, on the SABC evening news, it stirred outrage and soul searching in South Africa, for a while at least. Now, over two years later, here I was, sitting in the living room of his home, scouring over traumatic video footage of a story that had fast receded from public consciousness. It was the first time his widow had ever looked in any detail at the appalling images, which still now evoke a paroxysm of disgust.
As she pondered the callous indifference and brutality of the police officers pictured in the video before us, her anger, grief and sense of injustice poured out. "Maybe if you are trying to raise your voice and start questioning things you will be killed by our police in our country," she told me. "I am asking myself whether the police are the ANC’s police - or are they the police of this country?"
It's a troubling question that was raised time and again as I travelled around South Africa in recent months. My journey to Meqheleng Township, on the edge of the Free state town of Ficksburg, was part of an extensive investigation into police brutality in South Africa for my filmSouth Africa's Dirty Cops, broadcast on the UK's acclaimed Channel 4 Dispatches series earlier this week. What I discovered raises many deeply disturbing issues not only around the fate of Andries Tatane but the wider culture of police brutality, impunity and cover-up.
My interest in Tatane's case had been stirred not only by the manner of his horrific death but also the failure to hold anyone to account for the killing. His widow Rose, clearly a strong and courageous woman, took me to an intersection near her home in the township, with a sprawling graveyard on one side and a kindergarden and church on the other.
Our presence attracted of group of boisterous kids, who scampered forward and pressed their faces up against a fence, peering at us inquisitively. Standing by a stream of raw sewage, Rose claimed that local ANC officials routinely drive past this spot but have failed to address the problems. It was for this reason, she explained, that her husband had been motivated to act. Like millions of other South Africans, Andries Tatane had demanded that elected ANC officials in his area deliver on promises to provide basic services and he wanted answers.
With a sigh of resignation, Rose said: "There is no electricity; there is a shortage of water. As you can see, the streets, they look terrible. This is not good for our health, for our children’s health. This is not good." I asked Rose why she thought those promises had not been met, and she replied: "We don’t know. We voted for them so that they can deliver. But nothing is happening."
A frustrated Tatane, 33, a popular figure in the township, helped organise that fateful protest march back in April 2011. In footage filmed by a local activist you can see the charismatic teacher leading the crowd, waving his hands. Massed ranks of men and women pour down a street behind him - singing, chanting and dancing. They are heading towards municipal buildings in the centre of Ficksburg.
Some video footage filmed that day documents how the demonstration moves into the town centre and shows protestors being bundled into a van by police. Tatane can be seen, his shirt removed, rowing with police officers. Local community leaders claim Tatane confronted the police officers because he was furious about the arrests and the way in which police aimed their water cannon at elderly people. Molefe Nonyane, a friend of Tatane who was with him when he died, has been quoted as saying: “When Tatane saw the water cannon spraying the old people he came back, took off his T-shirt and said: ‘Why don’t you shoot me?’”
After he challenged the police, a scuffle ensued. Suddenly a group of officers in riot gear surrounded Tatane and started pummelling him with batons. One officer moved towards Tatane and fired a rubber bullet into his chest at close range. Moments later another officer did the same thing.
As we watched his horrific video, his widow Rose told me: "Even if he showed them that he was surrendering, they didn’t want to listen to anything. But what surprises me is that they said he was fighting back. You cannot just stand when the people are beating you. I don’t understand what was happening. You cannot be beaten and just stand still and do nothing. He was trying to protect himself. But I think he got angry because he put up his hands to show that he was surrendering, but they still attacked him."
Later in the video footage Tatane can be seen, severely injured, with blood streaming down this chest and torso. As he stands there, clearly in agony, a friend cries out for help. He eventually collapses. According to witnesses, about 20 minutes later he is dead.
Much was made of the behaviour of protestors by the South African authorities who were cast as unruly and accused of provoking and taunting the police. From my side the burning question was this: what has happened to the South African police that they felt it was fine for them beat and shoot an unarmed man, in full view of the cameras, and yet no-one was held to account?
Seven officers were arrested on suspicion of killing Tatane, but all seven were acquitted in March this year when the state's case fell apart. Police officers changed their statements and the court heard the identities of the accused could not be established, nor their weapons traced. Magistrate Hein van Niekerk found the State could not prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and said it was not possible to identify the officers because they were wearing helmets.
As I arrived in Ficksburg, I telephoned the judge in the case, Magistrate van Niekerk. He told that I would indeed by able to access all the evidence from the court in Ficksburg and that I should take a hard drive with me so I could do the necessary copying of that material. But at the court I was informed by officials that the video and court documents were no longer there. They suggested I contact the law courts in the nearby town of Bethlehem. It dawned on me that maybe I was chasing an elusive wandering star that even the wisest of wise men might struggle to locate.
Predictably perhaps court officials in Bethlehem could offer no help. I was referred to the Department of Justice in Bloemfontein. Here again it was impossible to get any clear answers. After weeks of being given the runaround I could not help but wonder if deliberate obstacles were being put in my way. Despite my own efforts - and that of two researchers in UK and SA - I was unable to locate or access any of video evidence or court documents via the law courts or South African agencies that dealt with the case, even though I had been informed that under South African law I was entitled to do so.
In addition, when I approached SABC to access the full footage their cameraman filmed that day, I drew a blank. After an exchange with the channel's archive department I was informed that they would not release the video to me, and told me that this was a "top management decision".
But I was determined to keep at it, and finally I did manage to get my hands on the "activist" video, filmed that day by an activist from the township. The footage is extensive and what I discovered astonished me. Sitting in an edit suite in London, we quickly realised that by closely following the weapons of the two police officers who shot Tatane and by staying focused on those weapons, it was possible to identify who shot him.
In a way I suppose it's a bit like some sports channels that show live football matches, where you can follow an individual player in a box as well as the game itself. Just as you might stay with the player, we focused on the individual officers from the moment the weapons were fired, scrolling backwards and forwards through the footage until we found we could identify them.
The camera continues to roll in the moments after the officers have both shot Tatane, and then one after the other, in the video, both officers appear, their faces clearly visible. One of the officers, a burly man with bulky frame shoulders, comes around and stands alongside Tatane, who is now badly injured and clearly in agony.
So how was it that state prosecutors were in a unique and enviable position in such a case - where they had compelling and incriminating footage evidence to pin on the accused - but still failed to secure a conviction? It also made me wonder what might be lurking in the police and SABC footage.
I tracked down a journalist who had attended the Tatane trial and had also been perplexed by the State's handling of their own case. The journalist told me: 'The State guided the witnesses through the footage to keep track of the accused, but didn't use stills or pictures to identify their faces at any point. It (the video evidence) didn't crop. It didn't zoom in. And even though some witnesses did explicitly point out the accused using this process, all of these witnesses were badly discredited in cross-examination."
Tatane had set himself up as an independent candidate to stand against the ruling ANC party in local council elections. His widow Rose is not only incredulous that the case fell apart but also sees the hand of political interference in the outcome. “I don't understand why they cannot prove because in this case there is the footage that you can look and say this is the person who did this,” she said.
The outcome of the Tatane case further underlined claims that even when the South African police act with brutality, they operate within a culture of impunity, where citizens have no consistent and fair recourse to take action when innocent people become victims. After many attempts to talk to government ministers for my film - all of them declined - I finally managed to get a short interview with South Africa's under-fire police commissioner, Riah Phiyega.
Part of the film further explores what happened in Marikana, where once again none of the police officers have been suspended. Some of the previously unseen footage and images we obtained further underscores claims of execution style killings, misconduct and a systematic cover-up by the South African police.