The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) has noted with concern the fatal shooting of 16-year old Nathaniel Julies from Eldorado Park, allegedly by members of the South African Police Service (SAPS). According to media reports, Mr. Julies – a person with Down syndrome, who was non-verbal – was shot a few metres away from his home after he could not respond to police who were questioning him last week on Tuesday night. The disabled teenager succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday night at Baragwanath Hospital. As a result of these actions, protests ensued, with community members demanding justice for Mr. Julies, who was apparently unarmed at the time of the shooting. In the standoff between the community and the police, residents accused police of trying to cover up the murder of the teenager.
While the unrest that followed Mr. Julies’ death is unfortunate, SAFMH supports calls for justice on behalf of Mr. Julies who, based on what is known about the incident, did not deserve the police brutality that cut his life short. The incident again highlights the need for SAPS officers to be trained on mental health as a matter of urgency which is also of great importance for the safety of everyone. A police force that is not adequately trained could result in irresponsible policing, which carries a risk of exposing members of the public and itself to dangerous situations.
The Mental Health Care Act of 2002 (MHCA) outlines procedures for managing people with mental disorders and also guarantees protection against unfair discrimination, exploitation and abuse, while at the same time affirming the rights to respect, human dignity and privacy for people with mental disabilities. Over the years there have also been numerous concerns about SAPS not fully grasping their role in terms of the involuntary admission of persons with mental disabilities, as per the Mental Health Care Act of 2002, Section 40.
The killing of Mr. Julies, who posed no apparent threat to the police, his community nor himself, exposes a discrepancy in terms of SAPS’s ability to balance maintaining law and order with treating persons with mental disabilities with dignity and respect, as enshrined in the South African constitution and MHCA. The manner in which community members describe the police’s interaction with Mr. Julies suggests a profound disregard for his right to life on the basis of his disability. This all points to a desperate need for more mental health training within SAPS.
Understanding that MHCA doesn’t fully guarantee compliance with its regulations, and it is therefore of utmost importance that SAPS works closely with health and social development officials so that they are aware of and have a proper understanding of the various mental health disorders as they perform their duties of protecting communities and maintaining peace and order. This is necessary to ensure the safety of members of the community as well as the members of the police themselves.
We call on relevant law enforcement agencies to act swiftly to bring justice to Mr. Julies and his family. Holding those accountable for his passing will hopefully illustrate to the people of South Africa that his life mattered and that members of SAPS are able to effectively fulfill their constitutional mandate towards persons with mental disabilities.