Opinion: ‘Police lies exposed in court’

8 10 2009


Mzonke Poni, leader of Abahlali base Mjondolo in the Western Cape, and accused on a charge of ‘public violence’ had his case discharged in court on Tuesday 29 September for ‘lack of reliable evidence’. Mzonke conducted his own defence and he did so brilliantly. He led the three witnesses, one from the Metro Police and two from Cape Town’s anti-land-invasion unit, into contradicting themselves and each other.

In reality Mzonke was scapegoated for his political leadership of Abahlali baseMjondolo. The organization supported an occupation of municipal land in Macassar, outlying suburb of Cape Town, in May by backyard dwellers. The city’s anti-land-invasion unit spearheaded the illegal destruction of dwellings that had been erected on the land – illegal because once dwellings are occupied, under the PIE act they cannot be demolished without an order of court. An interdict was obtained in court declaring the illegality, but was overtaken by an interdict procured by the city prohibiting erection of structures on the land. In these ways the poor are denied justice by those with the resources.

However this case resulted in a bit of a comeback for the masses. Under Poni’s questioning, the three law enforcement witnesses could not even agree what he had done to warrant a charge of “public violence’. The first said that Poni was a leader (“voorbok”) but could not really say why. The second claimed that he had been policing the demonstration which was “rustig” (quiet) and then Poni arrived and spoke to the people and then there was “chaos” – stones thrown, fires lit, tyres burnt, etc. The third claimed that he had seen Poni lighting a fire (and though it was elicited that he was a few steps away could not recall whether it was lit with petrol or paraffin). In reality, neither of these witnesses (nor any police) had been there when the fires were lit, and only arrived later on to put them out and clear the road of tyres and stones!

Mzonke stated that he had merely observed the demonstration and had taken photos of it, including when law enforcement arrived late to try to clear the road. The first witness admitted that he had approached Mzonke twice while he was taking photos, to tell him to stop. He however denied Mzonke’s claim that he had said to him “Motherfucker, we are going to motherfucking arrest you.” He said that with women and children present he would never have used such language. Mzonke said he had responded to the officer by saying “then arrest me”. The magistrate asked the officer why, if he had told Mzonke to stop taking photos, he had not confiscated his cellphone camera, or arrested him then. The witness could not reply to this.

The police witnesses were equally unclear about the circumstances of Mzonke’s arrest. In reality Mzonke was arrested after he left the area of the demonstration in order to go home. He was standing next to a road at least 500 metres from the demonstration talking to two people when police cars arrived. The other two fled, but Mzonke stood his ground. “Arrest me if you like” he claimed that he said. He stated that the police then fired pepper gas at him, dragged him into a law enforcement private car, and drove him around Macassar, beating and abusing him, before transferring him into a regular police car and taking him to the police station.

The officer who arrested him admitted that this had taken place away from the scene of the disturbance. He claimed, as did the second witness, that “minimum force” had been used. But neither of these witnesses, when asked by Mzonke, was very clear on what actual force had been used in this case.

The third witness claimed initially that Mzonke had been arrested on the scene of the disturbance surrounded by people who were singing freedom songs (while Mzonke was not singing). He could not respond adequately when Mzonke asked him why the people singing had not been arrested with him. Later Mzonke asked him whether he had seen him (Mzonke) running away when there was the attempt to arrest him. “Yes” the witness replied. “Did you chase me?” asked Mzonke. “Yes” replied the witness. “But earlier you said I was standing with people singing when you arrested me” Mzonke said. “Yes, we chased you round the block and you ended up back in the demonstration” was the implausible reply.

The magistrate had closely questioned the first witness on elements of his testimony to try to get a clear picture of events and resolve the contradictions in his evidence. She was particularly concerned as to why, if Poni had been so much an instigator, they had waited so long to arrest him. By the time the third witness was on the stand, however, the magistrate and even the prosecutor were dissolving into fits of laughter at the evidence! The comedy was better than the Keystone Cops. Dryly, the magistrate told the third witness before dismissing him “What you just said contradicts the testimony of the previous witness.”

Without any pause, she immediately declared that due to lack of reliable evidence, Mzonke was discharged and was free to go. Mzonke and I celebrated outside the courtroom with high fives. It was a small victory in the fight for justice and homes for all.

Professor Martin Legassick




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