There seems to be no let-up in the abuse of community members by those who are supposed to protect them, the SAPS. Members of various policing units are implicated in cases of assault and torture, but thuggish tactics appear part and parcel of Tactical Response Team (TRT) operations. To make matters worse, there seems to be an absence of any proper control over these ill-trained and ill-disciplined members, as evidenced by what has been happening to community members in the Creighton/Donnybrook/Ixopo area during the past few weeks.
The TRT is a relatively new unit, established in 2009, and described as the ‘brainchild’ of suspended national commissioner Bheki Cele. It is described as an elite unit, with the recruits supposedly receiving similar training to that undergone by the National Intervention Unit (NIU). Platoon members are trained for eight weeks, and unit commanders for ten. It is not clear whether recruits to this unit have completed basic SAPS training. They wear a distinctive uniform with a beret, and are deployed in different policing clusters (i.e. areas comprising a number of stations) to deal with medium to high risk policing demands (e.g. crowd control), where they fall under the ultimate control of the Cluster Commander.
The activities of a group of approximately eight TRT members deployed in the areas served by the Ixopo, Creighton, Donnybrook, Himeville, Umzimkhulu stations were reported to Monitor in January. According to Mr Timothy Maduna, a licensed tavern operator, a group of police members (they did not identify themselves) came to his tavern on the evening of 12 January and, he claims, without provocation, assaulted patrons and himself, and broke furniture. His elderly mother was allegedly among those assaulted. It transpired these men were TRT members, accompanied by local station members. Mr Maduna was extremely reluctant to open a case, especially after he allegedly received threatening, anonymous phone calls about what would happen to him if he did. He did eventually open a case, as did one of his patrons, but other locals who claimed assault feared to open cases – perhaps with good reason in the light of subsequent developments.
The local station commissioner was helpful, but was not responsible for these TRT members, whose deployment was done through the Cluster head at Port Shepstone. An officer at the Donnybrook SAPS (name known) and a colonel (name not provided) were apparently responsible for local level operations.
One of those who was allegedly assaulted around the time of the tavern assaults was prominent youth leader Thabiso Zulu. He too initially declined to open a case. Then, on 27 January, Zulu was assaulted for the second time by the same group of TRT members, in front of a number of people at a garage in Donnybrook. He recognised these men as being the same group who had assaulted him previously – but they were not in uniform. Zulu needed medical attention for his injuries. He believes that he was assaulted because he had complained about the conduct of the group, and had encouraged others to open cases. Although he had little confidence that justice would be done he did, however, open a case.
He then started to receive information that his life was in danger. The investigating officer contacted him about attending an ID parade, but it could not be held because whoever was in charge of these TRT members did not supply the list of members who were on duty at the time of the assault, which is the standard requirement for an ID parade. The Cluster Commander was immediately contacted (1 February) and asked to make sure that the information was provided for the ID parade to go ahead.
By 8 February, no ID parade had been held, allegedly because those responsible for the TRT members had not supplied the list of persons on duty on 27 January. In the mean time, Mr Zulu has received information that he may be killed to prevent him identifying those who assaulted him, and has received anonymous threatening calls. He has had no option but to move his family away from their home, and has paid someone to guard it for him. He is in hiding himself. Concerns about the safety of Mr Maduna, too, remain. There are reports of witnesses being harassed by the same group of men.
People’s reluctance to open cases against thuggish police members is thus shown to be understandable. These TRT members appear to be operating exactly as they please, without any proper supervision whatsoever, with the threat of violence and assault of innocent community members being part of their modus operandi. What is completely unacceptable is the failure of police management to intervene, since – wherever the blame lies – placing obstacles in the way of an ID parade is tantamount to defeating the ends of justice. The failure of management to remove the suspects from the area, where they are free to intimidate complainants and witnesses alike, is placing people’s lives at risk.
While it has not been confirmed, there are allegations, including from a friend of the deceased, that Skhumbuzo Mkhwenazi, the brother of the acting national commissioner of the SAPS, had been harassed by TRT members before he died. Hopefully, these allegations will be interrogated.
The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) has been requested to intervene in the matter of TRT conduct in the Ixopo area, and it remains to be seen whether the unit will do so. What is needed is a full investigation into the training and supervision – if any – of TRT members country-wide. The fact that the TRT is engaged in the type of work that established units (such as the National Intervention Unit and Public Order Policing) are tasked with begs the question about why this unit was established in the first place, and whether it should simply be disbanded.
 in another case, involving Public Order Policing, the investigating officer is still waiting for a list of members for an ID parade over a year after a serious assault/torture occurred, The victim, too, went into hiding following threats