No help for dying
Answers are being demanded over the murder of a young Amanzimtoti man. Vivian Attwood reports
THE telephones were all in working order at Amanzimtoti Police Station on the day Stephen Coetzee was shot, said SAPS spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane.
He said claims of being unable to get through were being investigated by the police station management.
The Tribune tested the main emergency numbers between 5pm and 5.30pm this week. Here’s the result:
The 10111 number rang just twice before a recorded voice kicked in, saying operators were busy and urging the caller to hold on.
Thirty seconds later, an operator came on the line and offered courteous assistance.
The number 911 was dialled from an MTN cellphone and a voice prompt came up saying it was an offence to abuse the number in a nonemergency and would result in the termination of MTN services and a fine.
After another prompt, the reporter pressed 1 for an emergency.
The call was answered in seconds, but cut off twice in succession. On a third try, it was answered by a call centre consultant based in Joburg who said the line sometimes gave problems.
She connected the caller to a Durban ambulance service within seconds. The ambulance staff said they got 2 000 calls a day. Some were prank calls.
On the Vodacom 911 emergency number, it took two minutes and 45 seconds before the call was answered.
After a request for a transfer to the central police station, the call was answered on the fourth ring.
The next call was to 031 913 1300. Voice prompts asked the caller to press 1 for an emergency, 2 for the detective department, 3 for the chemistry department, 4 for forensics, 5 for admin.
After 1 was pressed, the call was answered within just two rings.
FAMILY and friends of Stephen Coetzee, 22, who died after being shot in the face at point-blank range during a botched car theft on May 11, have said living in Amanzimtoti is like living in a war zone.
His bereft father, also Stephen, said residents felt they were at the mercy of criminals and could not count on the police to protect them.
Coetzee senior and others close to the victim tried repeatedly to get help from the SAPS office in Amanzimtoti, and by dialling police emergency numbers – without success. The victim was finally driven to hospital in a private car, where he died two hours later.
At a “war against crime” meeting in Amanzimtoti earlier this week, Stephen Coetzee spoke of his agony as his son’s life slipped away, and police failed to answer their phones.
“When my boys were small and anything bad happened, I would say to them: ‘ Toe maar, Pappa sal alles regmaak’ (Never mind, Daddy will make things right). But I couldn’t. I could not keep him safe, and the police, whom I trusted to protect my family, failed us. What hope is there for this country?”
Stephen jnr and his best friend, Jacques Nel, both engineers, were passionate about cars, and spent every free weekend restoring a VW Beetle. They were tinkering in the garage of the Coetzee home, in Umdoni Grove, StWinifreds, watched by Coetzee snr, at about 5.15pm on a Friday when an armed man appeared at the top of the drive, and aimed his gun at the older man. Two more men climbed into the family’s new Ford Fiesta, which was parked in the drive with the boot open.
“I picked up a torque wrench to throw at the guy with the gun,” said Coetzee.
“‘ Pa! Los dit, Pa!’ (Leave it, Dad) Stephen shouted. But then I saw two more men going into the house where my partner and her eight-year-old child, and my 15-year-old son, were watching TV. I knew I had to protect them, so I threw the wrench at the gunman.”
With that, the armed man ran and climbed into the open boot of the car, which started reversing down the narrow driveway. Part of the way down the driver crashed into a wall and burst a tyre. Coetzee managed to ram one of the hijackers with an open door. Stephen tried to join his father, but was held back by Jacques.
“My son screamed, ‘ Hulle gaan my Pa vanaand doodskiet’ (They are going to shoot my father dead tonight) and Jacques let go. As Stephen ran to help me, the man in the back shot him in the head,” wept Coetzee. “I saw the velocity of the bullet buckle his face, and I grabbed him before his body could hit the ground.”
The five men fled in a wait- ing car and Coetzee, Nel and frantic neighbours and friends began dialling all the emergency and police numbers they knew. Nel’s mother, Zelda, got a hysterical call from her son at 5.30pm. “They shot Steve. He is bleeding here at my feet. Please, please get help,” he screamed.
Zelda mobilised members of her family to dial emergency numbers, but the numbers rang unanswered or were diverted to call centres that gave endless dialling options.
“Like Stephen’s father, we called the Amanzimtoti SAPS office, as well as 10111 and 031 913 1300,” said Zelda. “Then I called 031 9111 on my MTN cellphone, only to get a long recorded lecture on the penalties for abusing emergency numbers. I was screaming while forced to listen to recorded music on the phone.”
At the end of her wits, she called her daughter, Anouk, who was visiting friends in Umkomaas who had a paramedic neighbour. He, too, tried to get help and got none.
Anouk dialled 10111 repeatedly. “It would ring and cut out, ring and cut out,” she said. “When a woman answered after almost 20 minutes, she put me through to Joburg. I just started crying.”
Later, she was put through to a Durban ambulance service, where an operator promised to send help. The ambulance never arrived. Stephen died at Kingsway hospital.
But the family’s agony was not yet over. At the funeral days later, they were horrified to find municipal workers had not ensured the grave was deep enough for the coffin.
As workers yelled blame at one another, Coetzee, Nel and other mourners took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers and began the grim task of excavating the hole.
“It was a chain reaction of disrespect. Stephen was failed in life, by the law, and in death too,” said Zelda.
The Nel family has put their home on the market and plan to emigrate to the United Arab Emirates, where Anouk has lived for six years.
“You might not have many rights there, but you have freedom,” she said. “Here we have rights, but we are not safe in our own homes and can’t walk the streets.”
Coetzee said he had no faith left in justice. “The police have no hope of catching his killers. They did not even test for fingerprints. I am never going to see justice.”