A gut-wrenching video of the scene is all the more disturbing because the men who abused the Mozambican immigrant were uniformed South African police officers and the van was a marked police vehicle.
The graphic scenes of the victim struggling for his life shocked a nation long accustomed to reports of police violence.
The Daily Sun, a South African newspaper, posted video the footage Thursday and it was quickly picked up by other South African news outlets and carried on the Internet. It sparked immediate outrage.
“They are there for safety, but we as a people fear them more,” said Johannesburg resident Alfonso Adams. “You don’t know who to trust anymore.”
Some of those in the crowd who watched the scene unfold in the Daveyton township east of Johannesburg shouted at the police and warned that it was being videotaped. The police did not seem at all concerned by all the witnesses and the presence of cameras as they tied Mido Macia, a 27-year-old from neighboring Mozambique, to the back of a police vehicle, his hands behind his head. At least three policemen participated in the incident. Macia was found dead in a Daveyton police cell late Tuesday.
“We are going to film this,” several onlookers shouted in Zulu as the police tormented Macia. One bystander can be heard on the videotape shouting in Zulu: “What has this guy done?”
A murder probe is underway on the evidence that Macia suffered head and upper abdomen injuries, including internal bleeding, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the police watchdog agency, said Thursday. The injuries could be from the dragging and he could also have been beaten later in police custody.
“The allegations are that he was dragged behind a vehicle and his head was bent on the police vehicle. There are also allegations of assault,” said the investigative unit’s spokesman Moses Dlamini.
The video evidence of the abuse renewed concerns about brutality, corruption and other misconduct by a national police force whose reputation has suffered in recent years amid reports that many officers lack training. Some have been charged with committing the crimes they are supposed to prevent, including rape and murder.
“As horrific as it is, it is not exceptional. Hardly a week goes by without such stories of brutality,” said Jacob van Garderen, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights.
At first, Macia, dressed in jeans and a red T-shirt, is dragged along the road by the vehicle at slow speed, the footage shows. He awkwardly tries to keep step even though he is almost horizontal above the ground. Then the van stops, two policemen pick up the legs of the taxi driver and drop them to the ground as the van picks up speed and drives off, beyond the view of the camera.
The police watchdog agency said the incident started just before 7 p.m. on Tuesday when the cab driver was allegedly obstructing traffic with his vehicle. Then Macia allegedly assaulted a constable and took his weapon before he was overpowered, the police investigative unit said.
Macia was found dead in a cell over two hours later by another policeman, according to the watchdog agency.
National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega “strongly condemned” what happened. South Africans are “urged to remain vigilant and continue to report all acts of crime irrespective of who is involved,” said Phiyega in a statement.
Phiyega has tried to upgrade the reputation of the South African police since her appointment last year. Last month, Phiyega told a group of police officials the standing of the force “has been severely but not irreparably tarnished over the past several years.”
The Policemen who did this devious act and Police Commissioner at the Daveyton station will face suspension as investigations proceed, said dejected Phiyega.
The problems, though, are immense for a police force that has expanded from some 120,000 to almost 200,000 over the last decade, “often failing to match the increase in quantity with sufficient quality,” said Johan Burger, who served for 36 years on the force before becoming a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
Several experts contacted by The Associated Press also said that in recent years there has been an increasing willingness to use a shoot-to-kill approach to the crime and violence.
An average of 860 people a year died in police custody or as a result of police action between 2009 and 2010, up from 695 a year from 2003 to 2008, according to Burger of the security studies institute.
Further staining the reputation of the police is the Marikana shootings when, on Aug. 16, 2012, a line of South African police opened fire on a crowd of striking miners, killing 34 at a platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg. A judicial commission is investigating allegations that many were killed in a rocky hill, near the much-filmed initial scene of the attack, shot in the back as they tried to escape.