Eight years after a prison inmate died after being beaten by Correctional Services officials and savaged by their dogs, the officials allegedly responsible have appeared in court.
Lubabalo Mzamo died in January 2015 after he was allegedly beaten by Department of Correctional Services (DCS) officers and bitten by their dogs at Brandvlei Maximum Security Correctional Centre. On 31 January 2023, the Director of Public Prosecutions finally decided to charge four DCS officers with his murder.
On Monday, 6 February, DCS officials Quinton de Wee, Ebrahim May, Alton Setera and Sakhele Dondolo appeared in the Worcester Magistrates’ Court, charged with one count of murder and four counts of assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm relating to the death of Mzamo. The case was postponed until 1 March.
The attack occurred on January 4, 2015. The DCS claims Mzamo was armed with a padlock hidden inside a sock, which he apparently used in an attack that could have been part of a Numbers gang initiation.
A video of the violent scene shows an inmate being dragged by Rottweiler dogs used by DCS officials. Inmates were beaten with batons.
Mzamo, who was serving eight years for robbery with aggravating circumstances, died from his injuries on 16 January 2015 in Tygerberg Hospital. Another 14 inmates were injured during the incident, five of whom were taken to a public hospital.
Police spokesperson Captain FC van Wyk told Daily Maverick the cases against the four DCS officials were opened on 16 January 2015 after an inmate died from his injuries after he was restrained after stabbing a Correctional Services official on 4 January 2015.
The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (Jics) has welcomed the decision to prosecute the four DCS officials. Spokesperson Emerantia Cupido said: “We are elated, but we are also concerned about all other alleged assault incidents inmates allegedly suffered at the hands of DCS officials. The one case in question took eight years to complete. How long will it take for other matters to be resolved before the cases are placed on the court’s roll?
“We hope that this case serves as a wake-up call to everyone that justice must be served and that no one is above the law,” Cupido said.
Not an isolated incident
Days after the 4 January 2015 incident, five warders at Drakenstein Correctional Centre were stabbed and seriously injured. Western Cape DCS spokesperson Simphiwe Xako at the time said the DCS was investigating whether the incident was linked to the attack at the Brandvlei prison, which was a suspected “spilling of blood” gang ritual.
Delekile Klaas, the Western Cape commissioner of correctional services, on 22 January 2015 said preliminary investigations revealed that Mzamo died as a result of a gang ritual in a new section of the prison.
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A year later
A year after the Brandvlei prison incident, Carolyn Raphaely, a senior journalist with the Wits Justice Project in the University of the Witwatersrand’s Journalism Department, reported: “For recently appointed JICS Inspecting Judge Van der Westhuizen, viewing CCTV [closed-circuit television] footage of warders assaulting a Brandvlei prison inmate, kicking him in the head ‘like a football’, then watching Rottweilers drag the unnamed inmate from his cell, was the last straw.”
The Brandvlei prison death also featured in the Jics annual report for the 2016/2017 financial year. Van der Westhuizen said in July 2016 that he became aware of events that had taken place in January 2015 at Brandvlei Correctional Centre.
CCTV cameras, according to him, recorded a series of violent incidents involving inmates and officials.
“A Rottweiler dog dragging an inmate out of a cell is clearly visible. The inmate is then repeatedly beaten by officials with batons, or ‘tonfas’. Eventually, he collapses in an office and shortly afterwards he dies.
“By then, DCS had not responded to repeated requests from JICS to report on their investigation. I was shocked. After renewed and more urgent pressure had been put onto DCS, the Regional Commissioner (RC) presented a report at the end of August 2016, largely exonerating the officials involved in the events on the basis that their working conditions were difficult,” Van der Westhuizen said in the report.
Jics investigation and quarterly report
Jics spokesperson Cupido said in a statement: “Jics launched an investigation into the incident and found that the correctional services dogs had been improperly deployed and that correctional services officials used excessive force during the incident.
“Jics had diligently been following up on this case for the past eight years and had engaged with all stakeholders involved to ensure that this matter receives the attention it deserves. Our efforts have not been in vain.”
Jics further stated in its Second Quarterly Performance Report compiled by inspecting Judge Edwin Cameron for the period 1 July to 30 September 2022 they had followed up on matters reported, which include the deaths of inmates at the hands of DCS officials.
Jics plays an important oversight role which, Cameron emphasises in an opinion piece, is to inspect, investigate, report and make recommendations on the conditions and treatment of inmates at Correctional Services facilities.
The DCS did not respond to questions on whether the four accused were suspended, whether the DCS will pay their legal bills, and how many other alleged assault cases involving DCS officials are being investigated. DM