One of the suspects interrogated by police about Mpumalanga's violent service delivery protest in Ermelo last month says he is now living under guard in fear for his life after his experience in custody, when he was allegedly interrogated about his relationship with Mpumalanga politicians seen to be opposed to Premier David Mabuza.
Residents of Wesselton township took to the streets in February in protest against poor service delivery and the alleged manipulation of the ANC's list of candidates for the coming local government elections.
Bongani Phakathi spoke to the Mail & Guardian for the first time since his arrest. Phakathi was one of the candidates who did not make it on to the list for the elections.
He said that he had met the Ermelo station commissioner, Colonel Zachariah Nyathi, the day after the protest erupted and Nyathi had told him he was suspected of being behind the riot. Nyathi denied this, saying he had met him as a community leader, not because he was a suspect.
Phakathi handed himself over to police crime intelligence in Pretoria two days after the protests erupted. He said he surrendered to police outside Mpumalanga because he felt he could not trust them after he was told some of them had been seen with regional ANC members.
While he was being interrogated national police commissioner General Bheki Cele was addressing the residents of Wesselton. Cele announced that police wanted to arrest certain individuals and that one of them had already handed himself over at a police station in Johannesburg.
Phakathi said he was interrogated for 14 hours by the Mpumalanga head of the Hawks, General Simon Mapyane.
"Mapyane asked me where I worked and where I got the money from to fund the protest. He asked me about my relationship with [provincial legislature member and perceived rival of Mabuza] Fish Mahlalela and Mbombela mayor Lassy Chiwayo. I explained my reasons for not cooperating with the Mpumalanga police, including the fact that I was asked about my relationship with politicians not aligned to the chairperson of the ANC in the province [David Mabuza].
"I don't feel safe any more in my own house because the questions were not related to community issues, but individual politicians."
Police allegedly raided his and his mother's house and there are claims that they assaulted the occupants.
Mpumalanga poice spokesperson Brigadier Lindela Mashigo confirmed that Mapyane had interviewed Phakathi but denied that he had asked him about his work or his relationship with politicians.
"At the time it was believed that he could assist in establishing certain facts and provide the police with an understanding of the unrest in Ermelo and not because he was believed to be instigating it.
"A number of houses were raided but I cannot deny or confirm that his mother's house was one of them. Those who claim assault may complain to the Independent Complaints Directorate."
Phakathi hired private security after allegedly declining to record his statement on video for the police to decide whether to grant him state security. "Why should I be recorded on video?" he asked.
He says his life is threatened and he no longer enjoys freedom of movement.
"After all this, it is clear to me that I have been targeted because of my views on the politics of Mpumalanga. I never supported Mabuza during and after the ANC conference and this is the price I have to pay. I don't understand how police came to the conclusion that I was behind the protests and asked me about Mabuza's rivals."
Chiwayo is involved in a legal battle with provincial police commissioner Thulani Ntobela following complaints he made to Cele about the manner in which Mpumalanga police are handling political cases in the province.
The complaints were made after Chiwayo arranged for Phakathi to hand himself over to Pretoria crime intelligence police.
The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is investigating two deaths following claims that Mpumalanga police tortured community members accused of starting the violent protests in Wesselton township outside Ermelo in February.
ICD national spokesperson Moses Dlamini said on Tuesday that the cases involved different South African Police Service units, including the National Intervention Unit, the Tactical Response Team (TRT), the Crime Combating Unit and the Dog Unit.
"The ICD is investigating two deaths due to police action, six cases of malicious damage to property and 25 cases of assault," said Dlamini.
Last week M&G Online carried a video clip taken by a Wesselton resident showing police forcing a resident to roll along the ground, allegedly while firing rubber bullets at him.
Dlamini said officials from the ICD visited Wesselton on March 24 to gather more information.
He said the investigation was complicated because of the different units involved, but that once completed, the dockets would be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a decision on whether to prosecute.
"Some of the units were from outside Mpumalanga, namely Limpopo and Gauteng. For the culprits to be brought to book, it will be necessary for them to be identified, and this will not be easy given the number of units involved and their different bases," he said.
The protests took place in the township from February 13 to 16 following complaints that the ANC's Gert Sibande regional executive council tried to impose candidates on its wards.
Municipal services such as refuse management and the provision of electricity and water were shut down for a week, while damage caused by the protesters was estimated at about R350 000 and included smashed traffic lights and road signs and the blockading of access routes to the township.
National police commissioner General Bheki Cele visited the area and deployed 160 police officers, including members of the TRT, to restore order.
The man accused of leading the 25 protesters arrested on March 2, Dumisani Mahaye, from Ward 1 in Wesselton, claimed this week that there was a bigger political conspiracy behind the alleged brutality.
"After we were arrested for the protests we were divided into groups of four and taken to the radio control room in the Ermelo police station where we were tortured into confessing things we did not know about," said Mahaye.
He said he was tortured into naming provincial legislature member Fish Mahlalela, Mbombela mayor Lassy Chiwayo and Ward 5 branch member Bongani Phakathi as the people who had paid him to instigate the protest.
"For their information, I have never met Chiwayo or Mahlalela. I know them only from TV. It is sad that the police are being used by unscrupulous leaders to fight their political battles," he said.
He said the police had given electric shocks to detainees, wrapped their heads in plastic and held their heads under water.
"I was forced to confess that I made and distributed petrol bombs that were used against the police during the protests. Most of us confessed to all the things we were told to say because we were afraid they were going to kill us," said Mahaye.
Mahaye said the charges of public violence against 19 of the 25 were dropped. He is one of six accused who are out on bail of between R200 and R800.
The six are expected to appear in the Ermelo Regional Court on June 20.
Mahaye said that Phakathi, the preferred candidate for Ward 5, was still in hiding because his life was in danger in the township.
"I heard that Chiwayo took him to Luthuli House where they have organised him bodyguards," he said. Chiwayo confirmed that he took Phakathi to Luthuli House for protection because he was informed that his life was in danger from the police.
" Lord knows what could have happened to that young man's life if he stayed in Wesselton," said Chiwayo.
"Some people wanted him dead and we could not even trust provincial police commissioner General Thulani Ntobela to protect him because I suspect that some police officers are protecting certain corrupt leaders in the province."
Meanwhile, Chiwayo said he had submitted a 100-page affidavit to General Cele and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa containing details of how some politicians had been assassinated in Mpumalanga, including late Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala, who was shot and killed outside his home in Ka Nyamazane on January 2009.
"I trust Mthethwa because I once shared a house with him when I was still in Johannesburg," he said.
Chiwayo's allegations that the police are protecting corrupt politicians in the province prompted Ntobela to lay a charge of defamation against him at the Nelspruit police station on February 18.
The following day Chiwayo counter-charged Ntobela, adding five additional charges.
The charges laid against Ntobela are of defamation of character, crimen injuria, defeating the ends of justice, intimidation and incitement. -- Sydney Masinga
Lungile Dube is a member of amaBhungane, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism; Sydney Masinga is a reporter with African Eye News Service.
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