The mother of a 2-week-old baby boy who died, allegedly after inhaling tear gas fired by police during a service delivery protest in Durban in the early hours of Monday morning, wept as she watched his tiny body being carried to the state mortuary van in a white plastic packet.
Friends and family stood silently at her side, their heads bowed.
One held the blue fleece blanket they had wrapped baby Jayden Khoza in, before marching his body to the local police station.
In a statement issued on the protest on Monday, Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers movement) said the Foreman Road Abahlali branch had organised a road blockade yesterday after their demands, made on May 23, were not dealt with.
The incident at Clare Estate has called into question the police’s use of force in protest situations and also placed a spotlight on a number of service deliver issues facing residents in eThekwini, particularly in informal settlements.
According to Abahlali baseMjondolo, Foreman Road has been waiting for electricity and proper housing for more than 20 years.
Abahlali said Monday’s protest was because of the city’s alleged failure to deal with demands made by the Foreman Road informal settlement community.
Baby Jayden’s father, Receive Khoza, said he and his partner, Nomazulu, were not even part of the protest.
“But the police came and started shooting tear gas at the people,” he said.
“And a cannister flew into the settlement and landed next to my shack, where Jayden was lying.”
Khoza said that Nomazulu went outside to see what was happening.
“She saw the cannister sparking next to the shack, and then the gas started spreading inside the shack,” he said.
Moments later, baby Jayden, who was inside the shack, stopped breathing.
They phoned an ambulance, but it could not reach their home because protesters were blocking Foreman Road and part of Randles Road.
“Some women came and took him to the ambulance,” Khoza said.
But after assessing him, state paramedics declared the baby dead.
Johan Burger, a senior researcher with the Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said he could not say whether police were justified in using tear gas without knowing what the situation was at the time of the incident.
But he did say police were meant to use the least violent form of force and work their way up to using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
And, he said, it was not advisable to use tear gas if there were young children or elderly people who could not escape, around.
Burger said if a post-mortem showed that baby Jayden had died from inhaling tear gas, police could be held accountable.
“And it will be for them to say they had no other choice but to use tear gas in that instance,” he said.
“Whether that is an acceptable defence, will be for the courts to decide.”
Metro police spokesperson Sbonelo Mchunu said metro police, SAPS and private security were all on scene on Monday.
He said none of the metro police officers were carrying teargas.
SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said an inquest docket was being investigated.
“The cause of death is unknown at this stage and a post-mortem will be conducted to determine the cause of death,” Zwane said.
“Police always use minimum force when dealing with such illegal and violent protest actions.”
Nomzamo Zondo, the director of litigation at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, and political analyst Zakhele Ndlovu said it was concerning that most communities believed that protesting was their only way to communicate their needs.
“We’ve already had Marikana,” Zondo said.
“Now a child has died”.
Zondo said that the Foreman Road community had for a long time tried to engage with the government on the provision of services and housing.
Ndlovu said the country had developed a “culture of protests”.
“Unfortunately people have come to believe that in order to see the government do anything for them, they have to resort to these protests,” he said.
“I’m quite certain that in their minds, the protesters feel if they don’t resort to these violent means, then nothing will get done”.
The mayoral spokesperson, Mthunzi Gumede, said the mayor conveyed her condolences to the family whose baby died during yesterday’s protest.
Gumede also said city officials, including the mayor, would continue to meet with all stakeholders, including AbM.
“We invite them to engage with us. The mayor is still committed to dealing with the plight of the poor and those living in informal settlements, back rooms, hostels, townships and rural areas,” said Gumede.