South Africa: 'We Were Quiet, but They Were Violent'

South African Police Service officer's badge.

In this second installment in a series on police violence, New Frame investigates how police assaulted Petrus Miggels in Uitsig. He died at his home shortly after.

On 27 March 2020, on the first day of the lockdown, 56-year-old Petrus "Pietman" Miggels went to buy two bottles of beer for his neighbour in Uitsig, a small area close to Ravensmead on the Cape Flats. Two police officers in a double-cab police van pulled up next to him as he was walking back to deliver the beers and stopped him.

An eyewitness reports that the police officer in the passenger seat got out and grabbed the beer from Miggels. Then the driver got out and began hitting him. The two police officers tried to load Miggels into the van, but they could not get the back of the van open, so they put him in the front between them and drove off.

Later Miggels would tell Valene Meintjies, the daughter of his partner Cecilia Meintjies, that the police officers asked him where he bought the beer. He refused to tell them out of fear for his own safety. They took him to an SAPS container, assaulted him again, and drove him back to where they picked him up.

During that time, Cecilia Meintjies was down the road visiting her niece, Nora Southgate. A neighbour walked by and told her that he saw the "police fighting with Pietman", but very soon after that she saw Miggels walking into their home. She thought he was fine.

When Miggels got home, he told Meintjies' daughter Valene what had happened, and went to sit on the mattress that lay on the floor just outside their front door. One of the children in the neighbourhood noticed that he was shivering and kept asking if he was all right. At some point Miggels stood up and then collapsed.

Meintjies was still at Southgate's home when her son came and told her that Miggels had fallen down and was just lying there. Still not thinking it was serious, she told him to go back, take a damp cloth and wipe Miggels' face.

Valene went outside and saw Miggles had begun to turn blue. Her mind switched off. Meintjies' son ran back to his mother shouting that Miggels had changed colour.

Meintjies rushed home. She ran past Miggels, into the house to get a damp cloth, and back out to him, where she began wiping down his face. One of his eyes was slightly open. She shook him, shouting: "Pietman! Pietman! Pietman!", but when she removed the cloth, his eyes and mouth were closed.

An ambulance arrived and Miggels was pronounced dead on the scene. Meintjies' seven-year-old granddaughter, Leslie-Ann Papier, started crying.

Petrus 'Pietman' Miggels

Miggels and Meintjies had been together for 20 years. They lived together in a one-bedroom house in Uitsig, along with three of Meintjies' grandchildren: Patrick Baadjies, 18, Graham Baadjies, 4, and Leslie-Ann, whom Miggels treated as his own. Meintjies' daughter, Valene, and her wife live in a small wooden structure in the backyard.

Miggels worked at Duroplastic Technologies, a fibreglass factory, for 14-and-a-half years, before he was retrenched in July 2019. "He was at work every single day," says Meintjies. "You could say to him, 'Take some sick leave', and he would refuse. He didn't believe in that."

His colleague of nine years, Angelique Nico, says he was a very skilled worker and a jack of all trades: "He didn't just have one job description. He had a few." As well as being hardworking, he also had a sense of humour and would make his colleagues laugh with his antics. Nico remembers Miggels plastering dust all over his face to annoy their manager, who would often give them a hard time, just to make them laugh. Along with the humour, Miggels was a very generous person: "He was someone who loved sharing. He would never allow someone at work to be without food. He always shared, especially with the foreigners who were struggling financially," says Nico.

He loved Meintjies' grandchildren. Southgate says he was more like a father to his life partner's grandchildren than a grandfather, especially in the way that he provided for them. Whenever he worked overtime he would bring treats for the two youngest grandchildren.

At home with his family, he was a provider. "The TV, the washing machine, the freezer, the bed, the kitchen set, everything that is in my house right now belongs to Mr Miggels," says Meintjies, "and everything that he bought, he bought because I needed it." Meintjies is proud when she speaks of the fact that her grandchildren never had to ask any of her family members for food. "Mr Miggels saw to it that [they] could eat and live."

In the months following his retrenchment, Miggels did not find it easy to be at home. He was used to being busy. He would often spend hours standing in their front yard, leaning over the wall and watching the world go by.

No longer able to bring his grandchildren regular treats, Miggels was still very present in their lives. He would get Leslie-Ann and Graham ready for school in the mornings on days that Meintjies was busy, and he would fetch them from school in the afternoons. Meintjies would often get home to find all of them watching TV together.

Cecilia Meintjies

Miggels had been the breadwinner in the family. After he was retrenched, they lived on the monthly UIF payouts he would get. Financially, his death was devastating.

Before the lockdown Meintjies was a domestic worker with five regular clients who each employed her one day a week. When the country went into lockdown and she could no longer work, she stopped earning an income. It is only since lockdown level three was announced that she has been able to work again, but only one of her clients has reinstated their working relationship. Meintjies has been trying to access money owed to Miggels by the UIF but so far she has had no success. In the meantime, she is being helped by her daughter and two of her nieces, all of whom have families of their own to support as well.

Three months have passed since Miggels' death. Meintjies is still coming to terms with what happened that day. "I can't believe it. I saw him that morning ... He made me coffee," she says.

Meintjies points out that what Miggels did was wrong, but she adds that at 56 "he was an older man. When [the police] got him with the two beers, they could have just said, 'Mister, you are not allowed to walk with alcohol.' ... They could have taken the beers and given him a fine, then he would have still been alive. It was not necessary to hit him ... They could have arrested him or given him a warning. Had they not [assaulted him], he would not be in the ground." Meintjies also says the police officers involved in the assault were young in comparison to Miggels. "They are children," she says. "Miggels was old enough to be their father."

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Miggels' death, but promptly closed it when an autopsy determined that the cause of death was a double heart attack. Ipid subsequently reopened the investigation on 8 May, but communication with Meintjies and her family, who want justice and closure, has been intermittent.

In response to New Frame, IPID said: "The investigation for this matter is completed and the Province is in the process of preparing recommendations to [the] South African Police Service (SAPS)".

On 3 June, Valene sent a message to the investigating officer to ask if there had been any updates. The reply said the investigation would resume when the investigators were "in the area again", leaving her feeling like the investigation was not being treated as urgent. On 17 June, however, the family heard that the Ipid investigators had been to Uitsig to take statements from eyewitnesses, giving them a glimmer of hope.

If the police officers who assaulted Miggels are held accountable for their actions, it might set a precedent and result in changes to how policing is done in Uitsig, where residents have enough social problems to navigate without having to worry about being brutalised by the police.

Uitsig

Rival gangs are constantly at war in Uitsig. Southgate says there are a number of hotspots where shootings happen. Some of them are very close to where she lives and when she goes to work she worries about her children getting hit by stray bullets.

"It's stressful in this community," says Southgate, a single mother of three. "We are used to shooting. They shoot every day." Southgate adds that when shooting does happen, the police are absent.

Residents are used to mistreatment by the police. Judy Meintjies, Cecilia Meintjies' daughter-in-law, had a run-in with police during the lockdown, when she and her brother-in-law were on their way to a neighbour who had promised them some food. They took a trailer with them to transport the food back home.

They were stopped by sjambok-carrying police, who asked them if they were "taking Ramaphosa for a poes. We were quiet, but they were violent." The police thought the two were out looking for scrap materials for recycling. A neighbour came to their defence and told the police they were on their way to someone in the area to get food.

"The start of level five was the hardest because the rules were strict, and we were scared to go outside because the police would react violently. That was the time we needed [food] so we would be able to stay at home." Some people who would go out in the hope of finding food would get locked up. "[The police] don't want to hear your reasons. They don't want to see you on the street."

"When they saw children outside they would shout, 'Gat in julle naaiers! [Go in you fuckers!]'. It's as if they put on their uniforms and forget that they are also brown people," says Southgate, "They are inhumane."

Patrick Baadjies

Patrick Baadjies' father was in and out of prison while he was growing up. His mother lived in Uitsig but his grandmother, Meintjies, and Miggels raised him, leaving him deeply affected by Miggels' death. "He didn't speak to anyone," says Meintjies. "He just sat on his laptop or watched TV ... Only after the funeral, once the coffin had been lowered into the ground he started to become himself again."

At his home, Baadjies, the quiet 18-year-old steps forward and tells me he wants to say a few things about his "oupa" [grandfather]. "I just want to say that I miss my oupa very much. I think he was a good man to my ouma, and to his other two grandchildren, and to the children of my aunts," he says. "He loved all his grandchildren, but we [the three he raised] were his favourites. He would have fought for us."

When I ask Baadjies whether he wants to share any fond memories of Miggels, his eyes light up and a smile cracks across his face as he recalls how his oupa would tell him about growing up without shoes, and having to play rugby and football, as well as go to school, barefoot. Miggels would tell him to remember how privileged he is to have shoes on his feet, and whenever Baadjies would come home after playing football with his church's team, Miggels would teasingly ask him how many goals they lost by, even though they hardly lost.

Miggels told him about the heat in Upington. Whenever they watched the weather in summer he would point out what the temperature in Upington was. It would always be in the 30s. On Fridays at 9pm, they would always watch karate movies on SABC 1. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was his favourite.

When Baadjies' amplifier was acting up and he managed to fix the problem, Miggels, who would be standing outside, would shout, "Aitsha! Daars 'aai move! [Wow! There's a move!]".

"My oupa was a very strong man. He never fought. He would never be pressured into doing anything he did not want to do," says Baadjies. "I'm still sad. I don't show it, but I feel [the sadness], and I miss my grandfather."

Loose ends

The most important lesson Baadjies learned from Miggels was what it means to be strong. When he spoke about Miggels' strength he explained that his oupa never fought and had a strong sense of who he was. For the 18-year-old, strength is not about being able to dominate others. It is not the ability to "skop, skiet en donner [kick, shoot and hit]", as Bheki Cele says.

If the police officers who stopped Miggels that day had a different concept of what it meant to be strong, a different concept of what it meant to be men, if they had fathers like Miggels, they might not have thought it was all right to assault a 56-year-old man who was breaking lockdown by walking down the road carrying two bottles of beer.

Baadjies had his oupa throughout his critical adolescent years, but Leslie-Ann and Graham lost him too soon. Since Miggels' death, whenever Graham sees a police van driving by, he shouts: "That's the police who killed my grandfather!" Sometimes he wakes up in the morning and says, "Good morning, ouma; good morning, oupa", not realising that Miggels is no longer there.

The family continues to come to terms with Miggels' death while hoping for a just outcome to Ipid's investigation.

"Things are difficult for my grandmother," Baadjies says, " even though I thought she wasn't as affected. Every night we stay up late speaking about my grandfather."

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