Posted on September 22, 2020

‘Coloured Lives Matter’: A South African Police Shooting Like No Other

Lynsey Chutel, New York Times, September 21, 2020

The deadly encounter between the police and a young man from the projects, set off public outrage with all the familiar scenes: shrines of flowers and stuffed animals, clouds of tear gas and barrages of rocks aimed at officers in riot gear, and impassioned slogans.

“Say His Name,” read one poster.

“Coloured Lives Matter,” said another.

This police killing occurred not in Minneapolis or Ferguson or Cleveland but in South Africa, where the anger and distrust of law enforcement authorities mirror that in communities across the world, but the geography of racial tension is more complex than white vs. Black.

The young man who was shot last month, 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, was of mixed heritage, or, as it is still known, colored, a vestige of apartheid-era South Africa’s racial classification. Two of the three officers arrested in the case are also colored, and one is Black.

When Nathaniel’s mother, Bridget Harris, saw first his body, she said, she was shocked by the gunshot wounds.

“We couldn’t count,” she said. “It’s too many.”

Death at the hands of the police in South Africa is hardly uncommon — by one estimate, each day a South African dies in a police action. But this particular shooting in Johannesburg unleashed passionate protests that commanded an unusual degree of attention, inside South Africa and out. And the explanation, at least in part, is that this was no ordinary young man who was killed.

Nathaniel was seriously disabled by Down syndrome, and barely able to form complete sentences. A familiar figure in his Soweto neighborhood, Eldorado Park, he was often seen hanging out in local stores in the hope someone might buy him his favorite cookie, or on the dance floor with his signature moves. He was known as Lockies, and many in the neighborhood made a point of looking out for him.


The authorities initially tried to suggest that Nathaniel had been shot during an exchange of gunfire between police officers and gang members. But within days of the killing, they charged the three officers.

Two of them, Simon Ndyalvane, a sergeant known in the community as Scorpion, and Caylene Whiteboy, a constable, were said to have been at the scene of shooting, and face charges of murder and obstruction of justice. They are also accused of attempting to discard evidence, said a spokeswoman for the prosecution, Phindi Mjonondwane. The third officer, Detective Sgt. Foster Netshiongolo, faces charges of accessory to murder and obstruction of justice.


In many parts of the United States and elsewhere, the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred fresh scrutiny of race relations, as protesters demand an end to what they see as pervasive police brutality, usually dispensed by white officers against people of color.

In South Africa, too, citizens have long denounced police brutality. {snip}

But the narrative here is more tangled.

In South Africa, a majority-Black police force is accused of abusing a majority-Black citizenry. The police station at the center of Nathaniel Julies’ case, for example, is staffed overwhelmingly by Black and colored police officers. But it has been the subject of over 80 complaints of brutality from 2012 to 2019, 10 of them involving fatalities, according to Viewfinder, an investigative journalism project that collects data on police killings.


{snip} In a bid at reform, the South African government began rebranding the department when apartheid came to an end, in 1994. It is now called the South African Police Service, with the word “Service” added.

But critics say, this has not changed the culture of the police force. The new generation of officers are regarded with suspicion amid allegations of rampant corruption. And police killings remain so common that it is rare when a death gets people to the streets. But earlier this year, demonstrations broke out after police and soldiers were accused of killing another man during the pandemic lockdown.


The authorities have pledged that there will be justice in the killing of Nathaniel Julies.

“We will spare nobody,” said the police minister, Bheki Cele, who in 2009, rebutted reports that he had encouraged a so-called shoot to kill policy. “Whoever has committed a crime will have to face the law.”

When community members marched to demand answers over Mr. Julies’ death, the police moved aggressively to disperse them. Protesters then barricaded streets and burned tires.


But many are skeptical that they will ever see justice {snip}