Marchers highlight death of sex worker

Scores of protesters march towards Mowbray police station with placards.

Family members, friends and civil society organisations want justice and closure after the death of sex worker, Elma Robyn Montsumi, 39, in a police cell at Mowbray police station in April.

Scores of people from the Black People’s National Crisis Committee (BPNCC), Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and sex workers marched to Mowbray police station last Friday, June 12.

Some of the placards they carried read, “Black lives matter in the USA and at home in South Africa”, “ End police brutality now,” and “Stop killing our black women.”

Ndelika Cola, spokesperson for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), said Ms Montsumi had been arrested on April 9 for possession of drugs and was detained alone in a police cell at Mowbray police station.

Ms Cola said no arrests had been made as nobody was suspected of being responsible for her death. She said Ms Montsumi committed suicide and was alone in the cell she was found dead in.

“She was discovered later to have hung herself in the police cell and Ipid is still investigating this matter,” she said.

Convenor of BPNCC, Lindokuhle Patiwe, said the march was important because black people were treated unfairly in this country.

And it’s worse for women, especially if that woman is a sex worker who is homeless.

The organisation maintains that Ms Montsumi died in detention at the police station under questionable circumstances.

Mr Patiwe handed over a memorandum of demands to Colonel Chris Labuschagne of the Wynberg SAPS Cluster who accepted it on behalf of Mowbray police.

Some of the demands include: The call for police to finish the investigation into Ms Montsumi’s death; calling for more vigilant policing from police to not just stand by and allow their colleagues to cause an act of police brutality; and calling for the immediate suspension of those police officers who took Ms Montsumi into the police station when she got arrested.

They warned that failure to do so would have them calling for the closure of the Mowbray police station.

Colonel Labuschagne said he could not provide any comments on the matter as it is sub judice and still under investigation.

Dudu Dlamini, advocacy manager for Sweat, said Ms Montsumi was lesbian, homeless and a strong woman who participated in the organisation’s activities.

“She was an activist and feminist and we want justice for Robyn and an end to police brutality against sex workers,” she said

Megan Lessing. Sweat spokesperson, released a joint statement by Sweat, Sisonke, the National Movement of Sex Workers and Triangle Project, which indicated that Ms Montsumi was sick and ill in her police cell on Saturday April 11. The statement said Ms Montsumi’s partner and some of her friends were able to communicate with her by shouting from the outside of the station and she would call back on how she was doing.

They reported on the Saturday that she felt ill and was vomiting.

“According to her friends she did not respond Sunday morning April 12 when they tried to call on her and when her partner got to the police station there was an ambulance and bystanders told him that it was Robyn inside and that she had hanged herself,” Ms Lessing said.

Ms Lessing wanted to know whether police checked up on Ms Montsumi when she was ill and whether they tried to provide her with medical assistance.

Ms Montsumi’s sister, Elizabeth Sellidon, 50, who is also homeless and stays on the street of Mowbray, believed that her sister was wrongfully arrested for trying to buy a single cigarette with a R5 for a friend.

Ms Sellidon said she witnessed the arrest of her sister around 4pm and said when she asked police what they were doing, they told her to “shut up”.

“I only want the truth to come out about what really happened then I can have some form of closure,” she said.

Mr Montsumi’s brother, Gregory Montsumi, 38, who also lives on the street, said he found it strange “that all of a sudden she would hang herself.”

Sex worker, Gadija Viljoen, 33, from Observatory who knew Ms Montsumi well, said: “Robyn died at a police station and the police’s job is to protect us and what happened to her could have happened to any of us.”