What happened to the Krugersdorp gang rape case?

Andrew Donaldson says the round up of the usual suspects temporarily obscured the police's habitual incompetence


A SIGNIFICANT cinematic milestone: later this month we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Part of the film’s enduring appeal is a script whose memorable lines are now so embedded in the lexicon of popular culture that they’re often repeated by those who have no idea of their origin. The overly familiar examples of this are “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris.”

Another, of course, is “Round up the usual suspects.” This, as movie buffs will tell you, is the by rote instruction from the corrupt French police captain Louis Renault, who issues it on several occasions in the film, most notably in its closing scenes. 

There is one occasion, however, where Renault changes his directive somewhat. A Gestapo officer, Heinrich Strasser, inquires about the investigation into the murder of two German couriers. Renault tells him: “Realising the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.” 

Strasser appears satisfied with Renault’s answer; he expects nothing less, he says. The exchange, which takes place in Café Américain, a popular nightclub and gambling den run by Humphrey Bogart’s character, the American expat Rick Blaine, further establishes the film’s often cynical moral ambiguity. 

This farcical attempt at justice is par for the course in a port where civil order is upended by the war in Europe and where the black market is thriving: the Vichy authorities are certainly not interested in finding whoever murdered the couriers and, as it turns out, neither are the Gestapo. 

All however go through the motions of enforcing the law for the sake of appearances. “Rounding up the usual suspects” is now standard shorthand for a hypocritical and mocking gesture of dismissal, where it is quite clear that there is no intention of taking meaningful action to address or correct a situation.

I was reminded of all this last week when charges were dropped against the 14 men accused of gang raping at eight women taking part in the filming of a music video at an abandoned gold mine near Krugersdorp. Members of the film crew were also robbed during the attack, which took place in July. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Suspicion immediately fell on zama-zamas, the miners who illegally work these old mines, and local township residents went on the rampage, assaulting several of these miners before burning their possessions and handing them over to the police.

Community outrage was further stoked by claims that these zama-zamas were foreign nationals, possibly Zimbabweans. These, then, are our “usual suspects”. This is largely due to the influence of Operation Dudula, the xenophobic vigilante group which blames “illegal immigrants” for rampant crime, unemployment and poor health services. 

Public anger over the rapes was such that the hopeless police minister, Bheki Cele, had to do something and it appeared that, at the very least, there was to be a tenfold increase in the number of usual suspects rounded up. 

What followed was a show of farce — and the media were invited along for the ride. It was soon reported that, in these operations, at least 130 illegal miners had been arrested and paraded before reporters before being held “behind bars”. News videos and photographs revealed bound men dressed in rags surrounded by heavily armed cops. 

About 50 of those arrested were released almost immediately. Shortly afterwards, about 80 suspects appeared in the Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court in a preliminary hearing. Outside the court, protesters expressed their fury at the rapes. Many complained that such attacks on women were rife in the area — but authorities had failed to take action against the perpetrators. 

Not one to miss an opportunity for attention, Operation Dudula’s secretary general, Zandile Dabula, joined the demonstrators and was quoted as saying, “We are going to demand that the police station should be placed under administration because the community has reported many crimes committed by the zama-zamas but nothing has been done.”

Meanwhile, and not to be outdone in making silly noises, Cele told a police briefing that the gang rape incident was the “shame of the nation”. It was a garbled address; among other things, he emphasised that the rape victims were not “from the street” but “were real people”. This, he implied, compounded the horror of the incident.

Police were reportedly investigating 32 cases of rape. Cele, however, went on to tell eNCA that one of the victims, a 19-year-old, was lucky to have been raped by only one man. It was apparently a clumsy attempt to explain that she was only attacked once.

As he put it, “One woman was raped ten times, not ten times but by ten different men. The other one by eight, the other by six, the other one by four, three. The one 19-year-old was lucky, if it is lucky, to be raped by one man.”

At least the maths was correct. But Cele’s comments drew a furious response from women’s groups and opposition parties. The Democratic Alliance wanted him fired, with the party’s Nazley Sharif saying, “How is it possible that a so-called leader who is in such a position of power perpetuates rape culture and gets away with it? If the ANC cannot act accordingly and fails to remove minister Cele from his position, they have no place to ever speak on tackling gender-based violence and femicide.” The party also launched a petition against Cele.

The Cat in the Hat, however, waited almost two months before delivering his response, one seemingly prompted by DA leader John Steenhuisen’s rather tactless joke, made in a podcast, about his ex-wife.

Speaking at an imbizo in Khayelitsha on gender-based violence, Cele said, “[Steenhuisen] called his wife a ‘roadkill’ and no-one is holding him accountable, and I would have loved to see Steenhuisen interviewed so that I could see how he would explain himself. And he is allowed to live with it and run the campaign. Please hold all of us responsible.”

This was more nonsense. The fact is that Steenhuisen was holding all of them responsible. And this was not a joke. The country’s spiralling crime rate was horrific. In a September statementthe DA leader noted: “Every day in South Africa, 67 people are murdered, 153 people are raped and 364 violent robberies occur. These numbers, coupled with an unacceptably low conviction rate, are an indication of a government that has lost the war on crime, and for this defeat the buck must stop with the Police Minister. He cannot remain in his job another day.” 

Cele however insisted that his comments about the 19-year-old victim had been taken out of context. “I said the 19-year-old girl, she was lucky if that was lucky. The DA has been running on this campaign, but they are not giving the context … It’s painful, this has caused a big political wave campaign, and the media allows these people to campaign on this. It can’t be a campaign to get votes what happened in Krugersdorp.”

A big political wave campaign? The campaign many South Africans would welcome is the one where the public finally gets to wave him goodbye. But whatever. The police investigation into the gang rape continued. The 80 suspects were whittled down to 14. 

Then, last Thursday, rape and robbery charges against the men were suddenly withdrawn. The National Prosecuting Authorities announced that DNA results could not link any of the accused to the rapes. As NPA spokeswoman Phindi Mjonondwane elaborated: “Upon consultation with the complainants in the matter, and evidential material currently at the disposal of the NPA, it became apparent that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with the prosecution.”

What this simply means is that, after their massive round-up of the “usual suspects”, the cops had arrested and charged the wrong people. They were probably aware of they were doing so all along. But, you know, it did look impressive, all that press coverage…

Women’s groups are rightly pissed off. The Commission for Gender Equality has called on police to relaunch their investigation. “We are completely outraged at these latest developments, which means the police have no idea who committed this crime. They arrested the wrong people, so the real criminals are still out there,” its spokesperson, Javu Baloyi, has said.

There is in all likelihood no chance of these “real criminals” ever facing justice. The police’s involvement in this appalling case — “investigation” seems too generous a term — has been an omnishambles from the start, a heavy-handed display of brutality and bluster over intelligence and procedural work. This is the Cele style of policing. He appears to believe that by behaving in the manner of a sub-standard John Wayne, bad guys will simply be dealt with. 

On top of the panto-ploddery, there are his dreadful homilies. When teenagers died in an East London tavern after drinking bootleg booze laced with methanol, he castigated parents for not knowing where their kids were at night. He boasted that his own son, a student, was under strict orders to be at home and in bed by 11pm on Fridays.

A community leader questioning the police’s poor response to gender based violence on the Cape Flats is screamed at and told to shut up by Cele in an embarrassing public meltdown. Recruits with tattoos, he has declared in another display of exceptional idiocy, will be barred from the SAPS because this is evidence of gangsterism. 

He has always been this awful. He had a disastrous spell as national police commissioner. Upon his appointment in 2009, he remodelled the SAPS along “army” lines, and there came a spate of cruel jokes about the military ranks he awarded himself, most of which he didn’t quite understand. (It’s for this reason that I’ve given up referring to him as Cheek Bile; he probably doesn’t get anagrams. Show him an item of silly millinery, however, and he’s at it like a fox on a crippled chicken…)

He was fired as commissioner in June 2012, following allegations of involvement in dirty property deals. However, and this is not uncommon with the ruling party, dismissal is soon followed by promotion, and in May 2014, he was appointed deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. 

In 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa decided that Cele had served his time in purgatory, and made him police minister. This was a mind-boggling decision, given Cele’s record until then. But how he blossomed in this role during the lockdown, a thuggish half-wit who went after joggers and surfers as if they were vicious criminals.

There have been many calls for Cele’s dismissal. All have fallen on deaf ears. But this shouldn’t stop us from doing so once again, particularly in the light of how police have cocked up this gang rape case. It may not be too late to save the SAPS from ineptitude, although it’s going to be a massive undertaking. The man at the top, however, must go. He’s rubbish.