Woman struck in eye by ‘rubber bullet’ loses R2.7m lawsuit against cops

Pretoria – A woman who was struck in the eye, probably by a ricocheted rubber bullet fired by the the police during a protest, lost her R2.7 million lawsuit after the court found the SAPS acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Western Cape High Court Judge JJ Cloete said when Dibakiso Lehlehla left home that morning for the college where she studied engineering, she must have noticed the crowds outside.Yet, she took the risk to walk to the bus stop.

Lehlehla lived in an informal settlement in Grabouw in the Western Cape. The incident occurred in August 2011.

Early that day at around 3am, a group started gathering in the area. The gathering grew and by 6am the crowd had swelled to over 1 000.

The protesters were reportedly armed with pangas, knobkieries, sticks and stones. They blockaded the streets with cement blocks, burning tyres and stones; and the flow of traffic in and out of Grabouw was brought to a standstill.

The gathering became riotous and people on their way to work were intimidated and assaulted. Efforts by the SAPS to restore calm and disperse the crowd resulted in stones and bottles hurled at them.

The police said they repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, requested the crowd to disperse. According to them, the only reasonable means of averting the danger to the public and SAPS members was to fire rubber bullets into the ground.

Lehlehla said while on her way to the bus stop she saw SAPS members facing the crowd. She had only walked a short distance when she heard gunshots. Immediately afterwards she felt pain in her right eye and blood began streaming down her face. She was later taken to hospital.

Lehlehla blamed the SAPS for the injuries to her eye and said they had a duty to ensure the safety of the public. She reasoned there was no need for them to have fired rubber bullets.

While she did not see what had hit her eye, her doctor said it was probably a bullet.

The police told the court they had no choice but to fire rubber bullets into the ground in a bid to disperse the crowd. When asked why they had not used other methods to disperse the crowd, the SAPS members explained they had not been issued with any alternative deterrent methods such as teargas. The use of 9mm pistols was out of the question because this could have caused serious injury or death. Thus, rubber bullets were their only option.

Judge JI Cloete said: “While I accept that she would not willingly have proceeded to walk directly into the heart of the protest, on the probabilities she passed at least alongside the protesters at a time when their assault on the SAPS members was well under way.”

The court accepted the SAPS members concerned acted out of necessity when discharging their firearms containing rubber bullets, as they were “hopelessly outnumbered”.

It was also found the SAPS did not shoot randomly, but had aimed at the ground.

“While I have sympathy for the plaintiff’s plight, I cannot overlook the fact that she also voluntarily assumed the risk of injury.”

Pretoria News

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