Police members involved in the July 2020 malicious arrest and assault of whistleblower Thabiso Zulu to face disciplinary action  writes Vanessa Burger

At around 22h00 on the night of 29 July 2020 human rights and anti-corruption activist Thabiso Zulu, was arrested on seemingly bogus charges of “inciting violence” by members of the Pietermaritzburg Public Order Policing (POP) unit. 

The arrest appeared to stem from a complaint laid at Mountain Rise police station at 15h08 on 28 July 2020, by Copesville ward 29 councilor Sphamandla Madlala, following housing-related protests that took place in the ward the day before.

Madlala, who is currently standing trial on fraud and corruption charges and was previously investigated for his alleged involvement in a corrupt network of Msunduzi government officials who purportedly allocated or sold houses meant for homeless Copesville families to friends and relatives.

Madlala was later absolved in a COGTA report on allegations of fraud, corruption and maladministration at the Msunduzi municipality. Zulu had been instrumental in both complaints against Madlala.

During the July 2020 Copesville protests it was alleged that the police – most likely POP – shot a number of protesters from behind. Some were injured and received medical attention.

Zulu’s brother was later arrested and the vehicle in which he had been seated at the time – not his own – was mysteriously impounded and not returned for months to its owner – who had no involvement in the protests.

According to Mountain Rise station commissioner Brigadier Boxer Pillay, detectives had obtained statements the day before Zulu’s arrest linking him to “violence” (presumably the protests). This would appear highly unlikely given the late timing of Madlala’s complaint.

It is also unfathomable why POP members were deployed to effect Zulu’s arrest and why they had been sent so late the following night when he already had an existing appointment at the station earlier the same day during which he could easily have been taken in for questioning.

During Zulu’s arrest he reported that he, his family members and friends were verbally abused (his mother was allegedly threatened with rape) and assaulted. A pregnant neighbour, whose home the officers had apparently initially mistaken for Zulu’s, was savagely beaten. Zulu’s cellphone was confiscated and R4 000 in cash was allegedly stolen. He was held overnight at the Mountain Rise cells and denied medical attention.    

Charges were later withdrawn in court, when, citing insufficient evidence, the National Prosecuting Authority refused to pursue that matter. Zulu remains convinced that the police intended to kill him had there not been so many witnesses.

Zulu – a close friend of the late Sindiso Magaqa who was shot in July 2017 and later died of his injuries after exposing corruption in the Umzimkhulu municipality – had previously survived an assassination attempt on 26 October 2019. He had been walking with a friend, Mlungisi Zondi, in Copesville when unknown gunmen armed with rifles and pistols opened fire on them. Zulu was injured but later discharged himself from hospital fearing the hitmen would return to “finish him off” after the promised police guards failed to materialize.  Protests against housing corruption had taken place shortly before the incident too.

At the time, Mountain Rise police officers failed to collect the myriad spent cartridges found at the scene. The case was subsequently taken over by the Provincial Political Killings Task Team.  

In a press statement released a month after the incident Zulu wrote: “I now know that I was shot through an alliance of looters from Harry Gwala and Umsunduzi. I also know that the hit was partly funded by political gangsters from Harry Gwala who were assisting those who are under investigation at Umsunduzi. Those who partly funded the hit are linked to Sindiso Magaqa’s case (Harry Gwala), and those under investigation at Umsunduzi municipality. Strangely, 72 hours after we survived an attempt on our lives, (Zondi) was charged by Umsunduzi Municipality on concocted charges. These are ploys of intimidation by political gangsters who are fearing prisons because of their looting.”  

Disturbingly, particularly in light of recent media reports regarding crime intelligence’s alleged involvement in the assassination of Sindiso Magaqa and police minister Bheki Cele’s alleged attempts to suppress investigations into these rogue members, Zulu claims that a certain crime intelligence officer who was at the scene of his attempted murder, also instructed police to effect his arrest. The identity of this officer is known and complaints have been lodged with the Inspector-General of Intelligence among others. 

Despite the charges against Madlala and consequent complaints to the party’s provincial leadership, Madlala was recently nominated to return for a third term as the ANC’s candidate for ward 29 in the upcoming local government elections. Subsequent appeals to the ANC’s national leadership led to Madlala’s name eventually being struck from its candidate list. 

Zondi, a witness to Zulu’s attempted murder and also a witness in the current fraud case against Madlala, was also standing as a potential candidate – contesting Madlala’s continued incumbency – in the upcoming poll.

During a Copesville community meeting on Saturday 11 September at which an ANC candidate was to have been selected, Zulu was allegedly attacked by Madlala’s supporters which included by a pregnant woman. After leaving the venue, the vehicle in which Zulu was by then seated, was damaged by the mob and the owner later opened a case with the police. After receiving medical attention Zulu also reported his assault at the Alexander Road police station.   

Zondi arrived at the meeting shortly after Zulu had left, where he was allegedly accosted by the same group who verbally abused him for being a witness in the fraud trial against Madlala. The mob then stabbed Zondi, causing injuries so serious that he had to be rushed to hospital. Zondi was to have testified against Madlala in court the following Monday but was unable to do so.    

Mountain Rise officers who were present throughout these incidents allegedly failed to intervene and failed to disarm or arrest any of the alleged attackers.

Zulu later learned that the woman who had attacked him – none other than Madlala’s deputy branch secretary – has since lodged charges of grievous bodily harm against him at the Mountain Rise police station.

Days after Zulu had been allocated a case number for his assault and communicated it to the investigating officer in the case against him, the docket had still not been collected from Alexander Road police station by Mountain Rise officers.

This, together with sensationalized media reports and spurious posts on social media that insinuated Zulu was “on the run” because he was “wanted” by the police, seemed to constitute a rather transparent smear campaign that not only served to discredit and publicly humiliate him, but also seemed intended to justify any police action that might be taken against him including possibly being killed by SAPS members while “evading arrest.”    

On 17 September the provincial commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, informed Zulu in a letter that a “comprehensive report” into his 2020 unlawful arrest and assault had found a “prima facie case against seven members from Pietermaritzburg Public Order Policing” and that “the matter [had] now been referred for a disciplinary hearing.”  

Now that these officers are facing sanction and following a recent senior management decision that these latest cases are to be investigated by the Political Killings Task Team, we hope that the truth will emerge regarding crime intelligence and Mountain Rise SAPS’s alleged collusion with politicians and that the continued attempts on Zulu and his associate’s lives may end.

But we are not holding our breath.

Unfortunately Zulu’s persistent persecution hammers home the hollowness of the state’s purported commitment to the protection of whistleblowers and witnesses as well as the depths to which the police have sunk in their involvement with the ANC’s factional politics and organized crime. If we have any interest in moving our country towards a functional democracy we must stand with and support those who expose corruption and add our voices to their demands for accountability, transparency and justice. It will be to our peril if we fail them.        

Vanessa Burger is an Independent Community Activist for Human Rights and Social Justice

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