Mom wins 11-year battle for justice

Police forced to pay damages to complainant beaten up in charge office

Meliwe Bembe has been awarded R130 000 in damages after she was assaulted by police.
Meliwe Bembe has been awarded R130 000 in damages after she was assaulted by police.
Image: Eugene Coetzee

An 11-year fight for justice by a woman who was assaulted by a policeman while trying to a report an alleged attack, finally came to an end this week when she was awarded R130 000 in damages.

An emotional Meliwe Bembe, 51, of KwaNobuhle in Uitenhage, has told how an alleged physical altercation with a neighbour in 2007 escalated out of control when she was beaten up by a plainclothes policeman while insisting on opening an assault case and ended up spending years in ill-health while trying to seek justice.

This week magistrate Albert Curtain awarded Bembe R130 000 in damages, describing the matter as shocking.

According to papers before court, the police’s legal team admitted that the assault on Bembe had taken place.

In the wake of Bembe’s claims that the Uitenhage police involved initially refused to allow her to open a case against the policeman who attacked her, police said this week that members cannot refuse to open a criminal matter against another officer.

Bembe told Weekend Post that in April 2007 she had berated the daughter of a neighbour who lived behind her.

She said she recalled the child had been cheeky, but couldn’t remember the exact details now since suffering a stroke.

“The woman came to confront me – she said I must leave her child alone.

“That was when the fight started. A man grabbed me and this woman was hitting me with her phone. I am on blood-thinning medication, so I was bleeding a lot.”

Bembe said she and her neighbour had then raced to the police station to each lay a complaint.

“I wanted to lay my complaint first because I didn’t want to be the one who had to defend [myself],” Bembe said.

“The policeman said I must go and see a doctor first and come back with a report. I didn’t want to go – I didn’t want this woman to be the first to lay a complaint.

“I said: ‘Please help me and take my case’. They chased me out.

“I said you can’t chase me out, this is government property.”

The next moment a plainclothes policeman had jumped over the counter and threatened her.

“‘Get out!’ he shouted at me. I refused. There were a number of female police officers in that office – they just watched what was happening.

“There was a chair there that had been bolted to the ground. I sat down and held onto the arms of the chair.”

Bembe said the plainclothes policeman had then grabbed a computer chair and started beating her with it.

“There were many people from KwaNobuhle in the office – they all ran.

The police officer was beating me and beating me – then he started kicking me. Still I refused to go.

“The police officer was beating me and beating me – then he started kicking me. Still I refused to go.”

Bembe said she had eventually had to leave because of her injuries.

“I went to Cuyler Clinic – I had such a headache. Now I had two cases and still the police refused to open either.

“After a week someone said I must look for the station commander.”

Bembe eventually managed to arrange a meeting with the station commander with the help of a friend.

She said while the commander had helped her to open an assault case against the police officer, weeks had gone by without anything happening.

After months, she paid a lawyer R7 000 to pursue the case, but “he just ignored me. Every time I went to his office his assistant said he was in court.”

After five years, she had finally come to her senses.

“I realised the lawyer was just lying to me.”

When she met up with her new attorney, Wilma van der Bank, she was advised to sue the police for damages suffered.

“I was very relieved when the magistrate gave his judgment,” Bembe said.

“What happened changed me so much. I am always angry. I am not in the mood to visit anybody. I am always afraid.”

Bembe said the damages payment would enable her to get medical help and therapy. “I think my daughter summed it up when she said to me after court: ‘Everything is going to be okay’.”

An assault case against the neighbour was never opened, but Bembe said that two years ago her neighbour had started greeting her again. She said they now talked only about “neighbour things”.

Psychologist Hennie Minnaar, who gave evidence in court, said the refusal by the police to help Bembe and the delays in her getting justice had led to her developing a number of chronic conditions.

He said she had also suffered a stroke after the attack, but her memory about this was vague.

“She suffers from insomnia and gets nightmares. She also developed anxiety attacks.

“She still has a lot of unresolved aggression about what happened and also about the delays in the justice system,” Minnaar said.

Police spokeswoman Priscilla Naidu said the police could not refuse to open a criminal matter against another officer.

“A person can open a case at the [specific] police station or any other police station.

“If the officers refuse to open a case, [the alleged victim] can go and see the cluster commander responsible for that station. At the end of the day, we cannot refuse to open a case for them.

“Once a case is opened and depending on the seriousness, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate [Ipid] will decide whether it is within its mandate to investigate the case, but otherwise it will be done at station level,” Naidu said.

Ipid spokesman Moses Dlamini said that prior to 2012 and the formation of Ipid, the Independent Complaints Directorate – the police watchdog’s predecessor – had not been required to investigate criminal matters against the police and the police had not been required to report such incidents to the then watchdog.