JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A clash between several hundred orphans and two dozen police officers on the beach in Durban has reignited debate in South Africa about police violence, racism and the failure to investigate serious crimes.
Officials have launched an independent investigation into the incident involving 450 orphans from Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, who were in Durban for a beach holiday Wednesday when four girls in their group allegedly were attacked by local men.
The group's supervisor said police ignored the girls' complaint of attempted rape, refused to arrest one of the alleged attackers, beat about 20 of the orphans and then tear-gassed the enraged crowd.
Ninety-five of the orphans were taken to a hospital for treatment for fainting and vomiting caused by the gas, said their supervisor, Jackey Maarohanye. She said she filed an assault charge after being kicked in the stomach by police.
Concern about South Africa's post-apartheid police culture has grown in recent years with numerous incidents reported in which police allegedly beat and harassed immigrants from other parts of Africa, fired rubber bullets at people demonstrating peacefully against the government's AIDS policies, and ignored complaints about the abuse or abduction of children.
Supt. Alex Wright, spokesman for the Durban police, said Friday that the charges had been referred to the Independent Complaints Directorate, which was set up in 1997 to investigate allegations of police torture and brutality.
In addition, he said, the officers involved who are found to have broken police regulations could face internal disciplinary proceedings.
Wright said police were awaiting paperwork on the charges and were unable to comment further.
In a phone interview Friday, Maarohanye said that when her group approached the police, the officers indicated they were not interested in pursuing the matter because the orphans spoke Sesotho, a language common in the central region where Soweto is located, instead of Zulu, which is dominant in the Durban area.
The case might have gone unnoticed but for Maarohanye's connections. She called Zanele Mbeki, the wife of South African President Thabo Mbeki, and obtained the cellphone numbers of Durban political leaders, who intervened in the case.
The orphans, ranging in age from 8 to 18, are from the Ithuteng Trust in Soweto, a charity organization that houses and educates them, helping them develop life skills. The trust recently received almost $1 million in sponsorship from Oprah Winfrey's charity organization, Oprah's Angel Network.
During the outing, which was sponsored by the U.S. National Basketball Assn., four girls ages 14 to 16 went to a public restroom, where they were accosted by four youths wielding knives, Maarohanye said. The men threatened to take them into the city of Durban and rape them, the girls said.
"When they realized the situation was bad, they started fighting back," Maarohanye said. "This is what I have trained them to do at school."
She said one girl was badly stabbed in the shoulder and others were lightly wounded.
As Maarohanye ran to ask police to call an ambulance for the seriously injured girl, more than half of the 450 students started chasing the suspects and eventually caught one, dragging him to a small police station at the beach.
Police at that point started spraying children with tear gas and beating them, Maarohanye alleged.
"They said, 'Who the hell do they think they are, being Sesotho speakers and trying to apprehend a Zulu-speaking person?' " she said. "I said, 'That is not what is important here. What is important is that the boy has stabbed one of my girls and they were actually trying to rape the four girls.'
"One of the police said to me, 'Well, rape is not important in South Africa. If they were raped, so what?' "
She alleged that the police then hit some children and banged the heads of some as young as 9 against a wall.
"I'm still trembling. I'm trembling from a great disbelief. For it was like I'm not in my own country, I'm in a different country. And I don't understand after 11 years of democracy that we had to go through this."