Killing of Atlegang Aphane for allegedly holding pipe mistaken for gun raises fears of 'shoot to kill' policy
By David Smith
Police in South Africa have allegedly shot dead a three-year-old boy because they mistook a metal pipe he was holding for a gun.
Atlegang Aphane's family, who claimed the officer responsible showed no remorse, questioned whether their son had been the victim of a "shoot to kill" policy encouraged by the government.
The incident comes after a string of deaths of innocent people at the hands of police, raising fears of the reckless use of lethal force reminiscent of the apartheid era.
Politicians warned that the fatal blunders would make foreign visitors fear for their safety during next year's football World Cup in South Africa.
The spate of killings has been linked to zero tolerance rhetoric from Jacob Zuma, the South African president, and Bheki Cele, the national police commissioner, instructing the police to open fire on armed criminals without hesitation.
Atlegang, three, was sitting in the back seat of a car parked outside a family home near Midrand, Johannesburg, with his uncle on Saturday. A police constable allegedly drove up and fired through the window, killing the boy instantly.
The officer apparently mistook a pipe for a gun being pointed at him, but no pipe or weapon was found at the scene.
Bongani Mchunu, the boy's uncle, told South Africa's Star newspaper: "We were waiting for the driver when suddenly I heard the sound of tyres screeching as an unmarked VW Golf stopped next to us.
"Then a gunshot followed. The bullet shattered the window on my side and hit Atlegang in the chest. One officer in private clothing jumped out of the car and ordered me to the ground while the other removed Atlegang's body and placed it on the ground next to the car. They screamed at me, saying I was a suspect, but they would not say what I did."
Mchunu said the officers failed to fire a warning shot or ask questions. "They fired even before they got out of the car. And then they did not even seem to care that Atlegang was wounded as they cuffed me. Even if I was a criminal, were they supposed to just shoot at the car when I posed no danger to them? They did not show any remorse afterwards."
The boy's mother, Mapule Aphane, 29, claims she was not allowed to get close to her son's body and had to wait almost six hours for a mortuary van to arrive. "I stood there watching the man who had just shot my son sucking a lollipop as if nothing had happened," she told the Star.
"My child was too young to die by the gun. Why did they just shoot? They then arrested his father, when all he wanted was to see his son's body. Is this what was meant by the shoot-to-kill statements?"
A police officer, reportedly from Johannesburg's Alexandra police station, appeared at a magistrate's court yesterday and was denied bail.
Moses Dlamini, a spokesman for the Independent Complaints Directorate, said police had been tracing a suspect on Saturday and had information that he was at a particular address.
"They arrived at the address and found a car outside the house," he said. "It is alleged one member saw a pipe which looked like a firearm, and he then fired in the direction of the pipe."
"A three-year-old boy was shot in the chest and died instantly. No pipe or firearm was recovered from the car."
Police tactics are under scrutiny after the killing last month of 30-year-old hairdresser Olga Kekana, whose car was peppered with 13 bullets because it was wrongly believed to have been hijacked.
Last week officers allegedly shot dead 21-year-old Kgothatso Ndobe as he bent down to polish his shoes outside his home in Pretoria. In Thembisa township, Johannesburg, police allegedly killed a man and wounded his mother after going to their home to settle a domestic dispute.
There are now fears the issue could cloud South Africa's reputation overseas. Dianne Kohler Barnard, the shadow police minister and an MP for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said: "With all this shoot-to-kill encouragement, what is going to happen with the World Cup?
"Of course these incidents will damage perceptions abroad. How do you say to an international tourist, 'They were shot for this or that reason, you won't be'. The world knows South Africa is a dangerous place with 51 people murdered every day. It's inconceivable in any other country that a hairdresser out for a drive or a child could be shot."
She contrasted the official response with that of the British authorities after the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. "You had people falling on their swords and feeling honour bound to do so. Here it's a case of, 'Oh well, let's fly up to see the family.'"
South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation said: "These incidents are not random events but reflect an overall breakdown of control over the use of lethal force within the SAPS [South Africa Police Service].
"It is reasonable to believe that this breakdown of control is due to a climate of confusion which has been created by statements which have been made over the last year, and particularly in the last couple of months, by senior politicians and police leaders."