‘These people are barbarians’: Police torture in Southern Africa - The Mail & Guardian

In Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe torture is used to extract information, elicit confessions, punish or sometimes for sadistic reasons.

2021-10-21 04:40:00 PM

An all-white police unit with a bloodied black man in democratic South Africa is reminiscent of apartheid. After almost three decades, little has changed. Although the race of the perpetrators is often not white, torture victims still retain a black face.

In Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe torture is used to extract information, elicit confessions, punish or sometimes for sadistic reasons.

for corruption among all government departments. As with the torture of detainees during apartheid, the aims of torture are manifold: to acquire information, elicit confessions, punish or sometimes simply for sadistic ends. The continued prevalence of torture is evident in departmental statistics, databases of civil society organisations, media articles and interaction with victims.

Anaverage of 200cases of torture are reported to the police watchdog annually, but this is certainly a fraction of the actual scale of torture in South Africa. The majority of torture cases go unreported for fear of reprisal or victims not knowing the procedures for reporting torture.

The ramifications on society are far-reaching. Various studies show how the use of torture has contributed to, an entrenched culture of violence and lack of social cohesion. South Africa’s neighbour, Botswana, is one of Africa’s oldest democracies. But even in this “ headtopics.com

beacon of democracy”, the police routinely torture people with impunity. Little is known of the middle-income country, often praised for being a “shining example” of democracy by outsiders unaware of its track record of brazen acts of torture. In Botswana, there is no real prospect of torture becoming criminalised through legislation anytime soon despite the prohibition of torture in Botswana’s

. The state has neither enacted laws criminalising torture nor established mechanisms for its prevention. Botswana, like many African democracies, ratifies international human rights treaties only to save face in the eyes of the international community. 

International human rights organisations havecondemnedBotswana’s continued use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, but are less aware of the widespread use of torture and maiming by police officers, including waterboarding, breaking of bones, hooding and assault of detainees (often leading to death).Botswana does not have a database or statistics on torture and other ill-treatment; nor does it have law enforcement watchdogs or national human rights institutions to hold the state accountable. In the rare cases that torture is reported, victims have to report torture by police officers or the military to the police. Furthermore, the absence of anti-torture laws means that even if criminal sanctions were to be instituted, the remedies would be for common law crimes such as assault or assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. 

Ralf* was a junior non-commissioned officer serving in the Botswana Defence Force when he was tortured by members of the Botswana Police Service. Ralf was wrongly accused of stealing an Uzi submachine gun from his battalion’s armoury. He was blindfolded and taken to a secluded area where he was suffocated with a tube, waterboarded, kicked and slapped, losing hearing in both his ears.  headtopics.com

During the ordeal he was threatened with being killed and buried where “no one would ever find him”. Having acquired no information from him, the officers released him without charge to face his physical and mental scars — scars that may stay with him for the rest of his life. Despite overwhelming medical evidence proving the torture suffered by Ralf, eight years after his ordeal no action has been taken against the officers.

More victims continue to emerge with stories of torture by Botswana’s law enforcement agencies. Victims who seek to report their ordeals have been told: “Once you are in police custody, you become the property of the state to deal with you as it pleases.” Unfortunately, many citizens believe this because they are not aware of their human rights.

The police use torture to circumvent the “difficult part of policing” — acquiring evidence by carrying out proper investigations. Police often play the role of prosecutor, judge and punisher. Where members of the public have attempted to record the police crimes, their recording devices have been confiscated and the footage destroyed. Police threaten those who report torture with trumped-up criminal charges and detention. Witnesses have reported hearing screams from police interrogation rooms with interrogators ordering the suspect to “talk’”

For decades, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe was atorture hub. The military junta that toppled Mugabe through what some euphemistically call a “military assisted transition” in 2017 seems only to have stepped things up. The widely documented abduction and torture of female political activists Joanna Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri in May last year is but one example. headtopics.com

In all three countries torture is condoned. If we are to do away with torture once and for all, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa will need political will and strong institutions. *Name changed at the request of the interviewee for security reasons.

Tshepang Edwin Makwati is a graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, a human rights attorney and a Canon Collins scholar. He is a PhD candidate with the University of the Witwatersrand. This article was developed as part of the blog project, Troubling Power: Stories and Ideas for a More Just and Open Southern Africa, which marks the 40th anniversary of the Canon Collins Trust

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