South African Police Are Undertrained, Uncontrolled, and Deadly
A disabled teenager’s killing underscores endemic police brutality.
Just before 9 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2020, the Julies family, working-class South Africans, were cleaning up after dinner amid jokes and music in their home in Eldorado Park, a suburb in southern Johannesburg. One of the most loved members of the family was Nathaniel Julies, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome. Nathaniel’s condition affected his speech, but he was a great comedian with nonverbal gestures alone.
After dinner, Nathaniel headed out to grab a packet of cookies at a nearby “tuck shop,” an informal convenience store run out of a private home. He loved cookies, and his neighbors often bought them for him. After he got the dessert, he saw a police van parked nearby with its lights on. He approached the van and stood close by.
Three police officers—Sgts. Vorster Netshiongolo, Simon Ndyalvane, and Constable Caylene Whiteboy from 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, in South African terms, “colored.”)
At about 9 p. m., a shot went out. An unarmed Nathaniel had been shot and killed by Whiteboy, one of the officers. He was murdered at close range with a shotgun, without provocation, according to four witnesses. A post-mortem report said Nathaniel sustained puncture wounds to the chest and abdomen that were consistent with pellets fired from a gun.
It was a killing that shocked South Africa, sparking nationwide protests—far from the country’s first.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) is one of the most brutal policing systems in the democratic world. A history of police brutality and human rights abuses in the country can be traced to its legacy of apartheid, when the police were used to dominate and discriminate against Black communities and to hunt down enemies of the regime. But the legacy of brutality has survived the country’s transition to a multiracial democracy.
Former police officers say in the first five years of democracy, there were improvements in policing, including a clear focus on community policing, building community relations, demilitarization, and human rights training. But from 2000 on, everything changed.
The training period of officers went from two years to just one, and there was massive corruption in the recruitment process—with positions often openly for sale. For the first time, police commissioners were political appointees, without the proper training or necessary experience to run a nation’s police unit. From 2000 to 2017, South African presidents and their successors appointed national police commissioners primarily because of their perceived loyalty, not competence.
“They are just appointed to act in the political and personal interest of the president,” said Gareth Newham, head of the justice and prevention program at the Institute for Security Studies.
In June 2012, for instance, Riah Phiyega, who was a social worker without prior police experience, was appointed to be the national police commissioner by former South African President Jacob Zuma under Nathi Mthethwa, the minister of police. In August 2012, the most lethal use of force by the country’s security forces against civilians since 1976 occurred. That month, 34 striking miners were killed, but not a single officer was prosecuted for the killings.
The Marikana Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate the massacre, found Phiyega culpable and declared “running a police service is not simply a managerial job: it requires a high degree of skill in policing operations.” But things haven’t gotten better.
More than 42,000 criminal complaints were made against the police between 2012 and 2019, including rape, killings, and torture, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), a government watchdog body.
“This number is small compared to the actual scale of brutality taking place on the streets of South Africa on a daily basis,” Newham said.
“They are not necessarily trained, but they are supposed to be,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Botha, who joined the South African Police Service in 1972 and is now a university lecturer after retiring in June 2006. “If you use the firearm as a tool, in a constitutional democracy under the rule of law, you need to train and retrain all the time because of the damage that this can create. It is the person that uses it that makes the damage. It doesn’t operate on its own.”
Botha was deeply involved in developing and implementing training as head of leadership and management development during his time at SAPS. But he said there’s severe problems with the process.
Like other experts in the use of force, he said minimum force is the first principle, adding “police officers must first speak and then use soft weapons until eventually one can use sharp ammunition if necessary. This principle is the main thing because policing is not about being the boss but to serve and protect people.”
Botha said police officers hold people’s lives in their hands and need to be trained on how to handle their rifles; their duty is to protect lives, not to take them.
“Down syndrome children are very special people, and you need to be trained to know how to handle them. In the old Afrikaans where I come from, we used to refer 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 hard 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 officers pulled him into their van and rapidly pulled away, sirens blaring. Nathaniel died before they reached Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, Johannesburg and told medical responders he was caught in a fight between rival gangs.
That was a lie, Bridget said. Nathaniel was not involved in drugs or gangs—and his disability would have made it almost impossible for him to be. Instead, he was a beloved and protected figure in the community and at the local school he attended.
Nathaniel’s case is not an isolated one.
The IPID—the police watchdog that investigates police crime in the country— investigated the killings and deaths in custody of at least 39 children between April 2012 and March 2018. Most died from police actions, including excessive violence or use of force. Only the murder of 17-year-old Nqobile Nzuza has led to a criminal conviction.
Outrage over Nathaniel’s death was enough to spark a rare arrest, however. On Aug. 28, 2020, two of the three officers were arrested and charged at the Protea Magistrate’s Court, and the third arrested a few days later.
The IPID said the gun used to kill Nathaniel used ammunition prohibited in. Two of the officers—Ndyalvane and Whiteboy—are currently facing four charges, including premeditated murder, discharging a firearm in public, and possession of illegal ammunition. The third officer, Netshiongolo, is charged with defeating the ends of justice for allegedly concealing evidence.
Ndyalvane, 46, popularly known as “Scorpion,” has a reputation for brutality in the Eldorado community. Court documents showed he had two prior convictions for assault and one for malicious damage to property. That’s not uncommon with South Africa’s police, where officers often continue serving even after convictions on such charges.
“He is known for his brutality on innocent people,” said Lazane Mickmaster, one of the witnesses to Nathaniel’s death who lives at the Eldorado Park flats. “The last time it was at Freedom Park that he shot someone. We have to get justice for Nathaniel and make sure [the accused police officers] pay for their crimes.” Mickmaster was referring to an earlier incident, where Ndyalvane allegedly fired over a crowd consuming alcohol at Freedom Park during South Africa’s lockdown.
Former SAPS police officers told me there are critical gaps in officer training. Whiteboy, the police officer who pulled the trigger, admitted during one of her appearances in court for a bail application in September 2020 that she thought she had a rubber bullet in her rifle when she shot Nathaniel.
Whiteboy said she had used the same rifle with rubber bullets earlier in the day to disperse protesters at Freedom Park.
“Since I joined the police service, I cannot say or argue at what point that I did not know the type of bullet in my gun,” Botha said. “In my training, I know what a live bullet is. What [Whiteboy] is saying is unacceptable to me. If you don’t even know that you’ve got a live bullet in your firearm then it shows that you probably moved away from firearm training.”
Themba Masuku, the program manager at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, said the shooting incident raises concerns about police officer training. “That explanation is bizarre, but also it points to the systemic problem within SAPS,” he said, referring to Whiteboy’s explanations in court. “If it is true that she doesn’t know the bullet in her rifle, then it shows how [poorly] police officers are trained in the firearms that they carry.”
A preliminary assessment of the South African Basic Police Development Learning Programme showed “one of the major problems is the process of recruitment, which allows recruits to enter the police force, to earn a salary and work at a police station, without a guarantee of training being provided for that recruit within a reasonable period of time. Many of the current trainees have spent up to two years working on police stations before being trained.”
There are currently 10 police training academies in South Africa—but despite repeated attempts, I was unable to get access to any of them for interviews.
This is no surprise. Most of SAPS activities are shrouded in secrecy, and the institution does not have a tradition of openness to journalists or researchers who want access to its colleges or training facilities, exacerbated by growing mistrust between the public and SAPS.
“I cannot tell you what happens on a daily basis in police training colleges because I am not normally allowed in there even with my background and who I am,” Botha told me.
Botha said while carrying out a study on SAPS officers’ emotional intelligence some years ago, his request to have access to the college took 18 months to be granted despite the fact he was formerly a high-ranking officer at SAPS.
“The government is hypersensitive and scared of criticism and doesn’t want anyone into places that will expose them,” Botha said. The situation was the same, he said, under apartheid.
Structural failings compound the problem. An August 2019 report showed lack of ammunition meant officers were unable to complete their firearm proficiency tests.
A submission to parliament in 2015 by Dianne Kohler Barnard, the shadow minister of police and a member of the Democratic Alliance, showed as many as 40,000 out of 194,852 working members of the SAPS had failed or did not have firearm competency certificates.
Eldorado’s residents told me they don’t want police in their community. Newham, who has been working with the police for the last two decades, said the police instinctively resort to violence if people don’t comply with their actions.
And 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 resident from the Western Cape province, was killed by police enforcing the lockdown rules. Miggels had gone to buy alcohol for a neighbor when he was assaulted by the police with a hammer. He died an hour later in his home at Ravensmead on the Cape Flats.
The IPID, which investigates deaths and assault complaints, cleared the police officers of any wrongdoing because Miggels had died of heart failure—even though it was caused by the beating.
An IPID statement said it is investigating 588 complaints, including torture and assault, that relate to allegations that occurred during lockdown.
“What we saw in the use of excessive force by security forces in South Africa and around the continent isn’t new, but the pandemic has really exacerbated problems that were already there, that allowed for a culture of impunity to flourish,” said Cindy Chungong, Africa regional director at International Alert, a U.K.-based nonprofit working to break cycles of violence and build sustainable peace.
SAPS officers are rarely prosecuted for killing or use of excessive force on citizens. In some cases, officers found guilty are given minor disciplinary punishments; shielded by the police hierarchy; suspended; or given warnings for committing grievous crimes, such as torture, killing unarmed citizens, or human rights abuses.
Newham said 95 percent of IPID investigations against police officers’ use of force ends with no sanctions against the officers.
“Police officers don’t believe that they were ever going to be held accountable for what they do on the streets unless a person dies and there is a huge outcry, but it happens very rarely,” he said.
In theory, every aspect of policing in the country is regulated. Each year, the police hierarchy introduces or issues new Standing Orders—but they’re rarely obeyed. “Training was a victim of this poor leadership and inadequate policy direction, and that’s the source of today’s problem,” Newham said. “On paper, the training manual and instructions for members of SAPS looks great but not in reality because a lot of the trainers don’t believe in the stuff they teach themselves.”
Masuku wants a different approach to policing. Lately, his organization has been advocating for the need for stronger legislation on the use of force. At present, the law is fractured and confusing. For example, the South African Police Service Act provides for the use of “minimum force” while the Criminal Procedure Act states an officer may use “deadly force” in the event of effecting an arrest. The Correctional Services Act is more lenient and provides for the use of force as a last resort.
Chungong argued that’s not enough, and ending police brutality, especially the use of force, starts with reconceptualizing the role of police and other security forces. “If we see the police primarily as a repressive force or something to control the population or protect the interest of a particular group, then we will always have abuses and conflict with communities,” Chungong said.
There are community policing forums across the country that work with civilian representatives in combating crime and building an atmosphere of peace and security while emphasizing the establishment of partnerships and a problem-solving approach that is responsive to community needs.
Today, however, Bridget told me kids in Nathaniel’s neighborhood who used to play with him before he was killed are now scared of the police. When they hear a siren blaring or a police van approaching, they run into their homes and start crying.
When I asked her 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 must take its course,” she said, gently falling back onto the couch sobbing.
Bridget was silent for about a minute. She stared at one of the pictures of Nathaniel hanging in the sitting room. He was smiling—like he always did. After some seconds, she turned her face away.
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.