15/02/2021

South Africa | Being less than dogs

Blog / By Evelyn Groenink
Catherine Ndlovu outside Naboomspruit police station Catherine Ndlovu outside Naboomspruit police station

When Catherine Ndlovu looks at Adolph Rikhotso something seems to break. The impenetrable walls she has faced, the closed doors, the unreturned phone calls, made until your airtime runs out, the ‘come-back-later’s’. For months she has walked around with a manila file that contains the details of the death of her son: from the letter her father wrote to the police, to the catering costs for the funeral and the cold words from the death certificate: unnatural causes.

Adolph Rikhotso is the policeman who killed Tsepo and now she finally looks at him.

He had been all charming banter at first when he had found us, one white and one black woman, and an interpreter friend, in the passage where his office is. If we wanted tea, he had asked, congenially. But Catherine just stands there, staring at him. I break the silence: ‘you killed her son’, I say. ‘Maybe tea is not a good idea’. And then his face cracks, and with it, just for a moment, the walls between state power and Catherine Ndlovu crack too.

Adolph Rikhotso killed Tsepo at Groenvlei, once a watermelon farm on Modimolle Road in the Waterberg district. But eight years ago the white farmer left and now there’s only a tavern and some dagga plants, a bucket with empty bottles and a few not too healthy looking chickens. Catherine’s mother Joyce Mashishi lives there with another five families.

Tsepo, 32 when he was killed on 11 March 2020, had also grown up here, living with his grandmother. He used to sell wood from the trees on the farm, which helped to see the younger ones through school. His mother Catherine, who had also grown up in Groenvlei, but is now employed as a cleaner in Pretoria (1), had relied on him to keep the family going.

Tsepo was naughty sometimes, grandmother Joyce Mashishi had told us and with her story seeped through all the trauma and misery the people, old and young, have been living, abandoned at Groenvlei, far away from society, or anything or anyone that matters. Those who had prospects of a better life had left soon after the farmer.  When he wasn’t chopping or selling wood, Tsepo smoked dagga, his grandmother says. He frequented the tavern. He did odd jobs for Ms Sserumula who gave him ten rand, twenty rand. 

One day, in early March, he beat up a fourteen-year-old cousin in a fight over an electrical plug. Badly. ‘He trampled on him’, says grandmother Joyce Mashishi. ‘But there was no bleeding, nothing was broken’, her former husband, Tsepo’s grandfather George Ndlovu, who joins us here, adds later. Nevertheless, both agree that it was correct to call the police, just ‘to teach him a lesson’. ‘I disciplined him a lot when he was growing up’, says grandfather George. ‘He used to cry and promise to better his life. And he often did’. Tsepo’s father had long broken up with his mother by then.

I ask George Ndlovu, a retired Putco bus driver who, also divorced from the mother of his children, who now lives in Mpumalanga, what Tsepo’s dreams were when he was a little boy. The old man looks at me puzzled. No, no dreams, he says.

Hendrick Ndlovu (3), Catherine’s brother, had called the police. They — Adolph Rikhotso and a female colleague — had come quite quickly, which may have had something to do, the family whispers, with Hendrick being a friend of Adolph Rikhotso. But since the farm is still gated and you need a key to enter, Tsepo had heard them coming. He had run.

They had come back the next day. Hendrick now brought Adolph with him in his own van. The other officer had followed in the police vehicle.  They had surprised Tsepo on the stoep of Ms Sserumula’s tavern. The young man had jumped up, tried to run away again. Adolph Rikhotso’s bullet landed in his side.

Catherine received the phone call that her son had died the next morning.

At Mokgoophong police station, in the dark brown passage that opens to offices where stacks of brown files are piled on floors, Adolph Rikhotso, service pistol on his hip, reluctantly says that ‘he cannot say anything because there is an investigation’.  Other policemen stand around, puzzled. How do members of the public even get here, past the front desk, to the first floor where the detectives are?

It helps that I am white, of course. With my loud madam voice, shrill, entitled, I had bulldozed through: Adolph Rikhotso, the murderous one, where is he? It probably takes work for any black person to learn how to talk like that. Even my uppity, urbane, super-skilled black colleague who has generously come along to act as an interpreter has been quiet so far. And he is a man. Catherine Ndlovu could never. Would have been laughed at if she tried. Disturbing the peace now, sisi? No, no. Make an appointment, off you go now, on your way.

‘We are less than dogs’, her father, George Ndlovu, told us just this morning.

We are ushered into the detectives’ office, where a commander Modiba tells us that IPID, the Independent Police Complaints Directorate, is investigating and that, therefore, this has nothing to do with the police anymore. The excuse: ‘the case is with IPID’ helps SAPS get away with murder a lot. Killing at least one person every day, SAPS ‘keeps passing the buck to IPID’, researcher David Bruce will state at an Institute for Security Studies panel a few days from now.

IPID rarely solves anything. It has a backlog of nine thousand cases. The investigating official in Tsepo’s case, a man called Mapheto, never phones George Ndlovu back. When I try, Mapheto mentions an outstanding ballistics report, then floats back into the distance.

To be fair, the ballistics report delay is not IPID’s fault. In the dysfunctional South African state, IPID, that supposedly defends the public against police criminality, depends on a police forensics lab that is — as Forensic Division commissioner Michael Mohlala will admit on Newsroom Afrika a month from now — in shambles after corrupt contracts and mismanagement by the same police. 

At Mookgophong police station, the interpreter colleague gets up to face detective commander Modiba. ‘There is internal procedure’, he says, softly. ‘You must take action when your officer murders someone’. Responding to the interpreter’s blackness, Modiba answers in Sepedi. Turning to me, my colleague smiles. ‘He says that I think I am white’.

Station commander Lt Col Kekana is not in. When I phone later he claims it was ‘self-defence’. ‘The officer was attacked by the deceased. I sent a report to the provincial level’. Kekana was told this by officer Rikhotso himself, he says. ‘And a witness, Ms Sserumula’. Ms Sserumula? The same Ms Sserumula who had told me in great detail how Tsepo was shot when running away; who had even re-enacted Tsepo’s running away movements? ‘Yes. The deputy detective commander went to the scene and spoke to this witness’.  ‘What witness?’ asks the deputy when I phone her.

Ms Sserumula’s witness statement had also been described in a complaint letter that had been handed to station commander Kekana by Tsepo’s grandfather George Ndlovu. Ndlovu had told me how, when he had been to the station to see Kekana, the commander had advised him to write such a letter. Ndlovu had done so. He had visited the police station again to deliver it. He had given it to the commander in his hand. ‘I don’t recall any letter’, says Kekana.

‘We are less than dogs’, George Ndlovu repeats when I tell him.

There are more discrepancies between what witnesses saw and the events according to SAPS. For instance, officers on the scene claimed that they tried to phone an ambulance but ‘that there was no network’. However, neither grandmother Joyce Mashishi nor Ms Sserumula had noticed that. ‘They just chained his legs and threw him into the van’, says Sserumula. 

Another assertion, by station commander Kekana, is that Tsepo ‘was immediately taken to the nearest health facility’. But Tsepo’s friend Oliver(2) saw him at the police station. ‘He had phoned me from the police van, saying “they shot me, they are taking me to the station”. I arrived maybe ten minutes later. He was in an ambulance then, bleeding heavily and unable to speak. It waited there for maybe 20, 30 minutes. The driver said the police told him to wait’. 

Where the dysfunctionality ends, I don’t know. Maybe if the hospital in Mookgophong was equipped to treat a severely bleeding person, Tsepo could have been saved. But it wasn’t and Tsepo was taken to Polokwane, one hundred kilometers away, where he died. Maybe the family could get some justice if IPID functioned. Or if SAPS Limpopo would look at the disputed claims in the Mokgoophong police station’s report, to which it was alerted from three different email addresses, as well as by Whatsapp and phone.

Maybe if there was a decent police minister.

The human rights lawyer whom George Ndlovu approached feels powerless, too. ‘I see no prospects for a court case’, she says. ‘They will just say the case is with IPID’. ‘Could we not try the SABC’, George Ndlovu asks when I phone him at a later stage. ‘Maybe something will happen if the story comes on SABC’.

On the way back to Pretoria Catherine Ndlovu uses her airtime to phone a friend. She talks, invigorated, about how she faced Adolph Rikhotso. ‘He couldn’t look at me’, she repeats, over and over again. ‘He turned away, but I continued to look’. 

Somehow, it is something.

  1. Catherine Ndlovu works for the author.
  2. Name changed because ‘Oliver’ doesn’t ‘want to make an enemy of the police.’
  3. Hendrick Ndlovu refused to comment.

This story was first published in the Sunday Times, Johannesburg.