Beaten body in field in S. Africa becomes focus of outrage against police Detention survivors tell tale of savagery

August 01, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

SEBOKENG, South Africa -- The death of Simon Mthimkulu might have been just another case of a young man killed in the turbulent black townships of South Africa.

The body of the 19-year-old high school student was found July 15 in a field in this troubled township, one of the flash points in the violence that has claimed more than 6,000 lives since early 1990.

But instead of another name on the long list of victims, Mr. Mthimkulu became the person whose death plunged the South African police force into its latest crisis and caused a major embarrassment for the government of President F. W. de Klerk.

Friends say the teen-ager was picked up by police and savagely beaten at the Sebokeng station. A leading pathologist corroborated their story of a beating and exploded with outrage.

Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, who opened his files to the press last week, said his work indicated that South African police were killing at least one black suspect a week. He said that the police were out of control and that the case of Simon Mthimkulu was the last straw.

The story of what happened that night was told by three young men who were arrested along with Mr. Mthimkulu but survived to talk about their ordeal. Human rights lawyers say it fits a pattern that has become too familiar.

"Policemen arrest people and beat them up," said Mohammed Mavsa, a lawyer with the Johannesburg-based Legal Resources Center. "It amounts to a pattern of lawlessness on the part of the police."

Samuel Selebogo, 21, said he was on an errand for his sister July 14 when he came across Mr. Mthimkulu and Joubert Radebe and Sikhalo Maseko, both 16. The three had been dispatched to collect money from a man who owed Mr. Mthimkulu's father and were on the way home when they spotted a dark-green police tank, a familiar sight in black townships across the country.

They tried to run "because the police are not trusted. They go about arresting anyone they come across," Mr. Selebogo said.

But the four were rounded up, thrown into the tank, taken to a deserted spot outside the township and beaten, he said. Then they were taken to the police station and beaten more severely.

"They used a hose pipe to beat us and truncheons," said Mr. Selebogo, who is unemployed and plays amateur soccer. "We were kicked and beaten with sjamboks," a type of whip.

The policemen forced Mr. Mthimkulu and Sikhalo to do push-ups, Mr. Selebogo said, and whenever either one of them stopped, he was kicked.

Mr. Selebogo said someone dropped a large rock on Mr. Mthimkulu several times and shoved his head into a toilet when he resisted his torturers.

After a few hours, the three survivors were told to go home through a back door of the police station. Sikhalo, the last to see Mr. Mthimkulu said he was lying motionless in a pool of blood on the toilet floor.

"I tried to lift him, but he was too heavy," Sikhalo said.

None of Mr. Mthimkulu's friends ever saw him alive again.

Mr. Mthimkulu's mother, Mapaseka Mthimkulu, found his body later that night at the Sebokeng mortuary after the three young men came to her home and told her of the beatings. She said she went first to the police station, but the local police commander told her he knew nothing about her son's whereabouts.

The body disappeared from the mortuary that night and was found the next day in an open field.

Mrs. Mthimkulu decided to seek help from the African National Congress, which has a large following in Sebokeng. The ANC sought the assistance of the Legal Resources Center, a Johannesburg-based legal aid office. After hearing the story, the Legal Resources Center asked Dr. Gluckman to conduct an independent autopsy.

The pathologist said he was appalled by what he found, a teen-ager charged with no crime but tortured and killed in police custody. "This could have been a son of mine," he said.

Dr. Gluckman said he had performed more than 200 autopsies under similar circumstances and was convinced that police were responsible for 90 percent of those killings.

Mr. Selebogo said police in Sebokeng never told the four young men why they were arrested but asked them to identify people in the township who had guns. He said the officers also asked specifically about local ANC leaders and tried to get the young men to implicate the leaders in crimes.

Mrs. Mthimkulu said her son had never been in trouble with the law and did not belong to any political group.

"Even if my child had made a mistake, they should have locked him up rather than killing him," she said before breaking into tears.

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