CAPE TOWN – Collins Khosa was killed by law enforcement officers in a poor township in Johannesburg over a cup of beer left in his yard. The 40-year-old black man was choked, slammed against a wall, beaten, kicked and hit with the butt of a rifle by the soldiers as police watched, his family says.
Two months later, South Africans staged a march against police brutality. But it was mostly about the killing of George Floyd in the United States, with the case of Khosa, who died on April 10, raised only briefly.
“We also lost our loved one. South Africa, where are you?” Khosa’s partner, Nomsa Montsha, asked in a wrenching TV interview Friday, eight weeks after she held his hand as he died while waiting for an ambulance.
Her words, in a soft, steady voice, were a searing rebuke of the perceived apathy in South Africa over Khosa's death. The army exonerated the soldiers in a report that concluded he died from a blunt force head injury that was no one's fault. His family is still seeking a criminal case.
Floyd's death also emboldened a small number of people in Kenya to march and tell their own stories of injustice and brutality by police.
Despite racial reconciliation that emerged after the end of the apartheid system, poor and black South Africans still fall victim to security forces that now are mostly black. The country is plagued by violent crime, and police often are accused of resorting to heavy-handed tactics.
Journalist Daneel Knoetze, who looked into police brutality in South Africa between 2012 and 2019, found that there were more than 42,000 criminal complaints against police, which included more than 2,800 killings — more than one a day. There were more than 27,000 cases of alleged assault by police, many classified as torture, and victims were “overwhelmingly” poor and black, he said.
“It is clear that in South Africa, 26 years of democracy have not as yet ensured that black lives matter as much as white lives,” said a statement last week from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which promotes the vision of the anti-apartheid leader and the country’s first black president.
Angelo Fick, who researches issues of human rights and equality, said white people are policed differently from blacks in South Africa in what he calls “the echoes of apartheid.”
Khosa’s family said his beating death followed accusations by the soldiers that he was drinking a beer in his yard, which was not illegal even though buying alcohol was prohibited at the time because of South Africa’s strict coronavirus lockdown.
The sale of tobacco also is illegal during the lockdown, and middle-class whites discovered buying cigarettes have gotten off with a warning from police.
Montsha described how the soldiers, while beating Khosa, struck her with sjamboks, the heavy whips wielded by security forces during the apartheid era. Police and soldiers still carry the notorious weapons.
“The old house. You put new furniture in but it’s still the old house,” Fick said of the security forces.
In Kenya, the police force has for two decades been ranked the country's most corrupt institution. It's also Kenya's most deadly, killing far more people than criminals do, according to human rights groups.
In the last three months in Kenya, 15 people, including a 13-year-old boy, have been killed by police while they enforce a curfew, according to a watchdog group. Human rights activists put the figure at 18.
The boy, Yasin Hussein Moyo, was shot in the stomach by police in March as he stood on the balcony of his home. Police have blamed a “stray bullet,” but witnesses say the officers deliberately started shooting at the boy's apartment building as they patrolled the neighborhood during the curfew.
Kenya's culture of an oppressive colonial police force is still intact, said Peter Kiama, the executive director of the Independent Medico Legal Unit, which tracks police abuse. There also is a security system that has sought to subdue opposition to the government and, in turn, has become corrupt.
“There is a symbiotic relationship,” Kiama said.
When Kenya created two organizations nearly a decade ago to monitor and hold police accountable, the members of one of them found a severed human head in their new offices on the first day of work. Just in case the message wasn’t clear, there also was a piece of paper with the words: “Tread carefully.”
Kiama's organization says 980 people have been killed by police in Kenya since 2013, and 90 percent of those were execution-style slayings.
Despite the decades of injustice and brutality, activists say there is no groundswell of public support for change in South Africa and Kenya, two of the biggest economies in Africa.
"I gave up on police violence being an issue around which one could get any kind of attention from politicians, or anyone," said David Bruce, an expert on South African law enforcement for 20 years.
In her interview on national TV, Montsha looked at the camera and asked South Africans why no one was standing up for Khosa.
“We are crying out loud," she said.
Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya.