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Case Study

South Africa

The inherent inaccuracy of “double-ball rounds” causes deaths of demonstrators and bystanders

Student speaks during the demonstration. South African police moved to disperse students protesting against refusal by Wits University to register those students in arrears with tuition fees. Police Clashed with protesters who were blocking the roads with rubble and disrupting traffic in Johannesburg. Thabo Jaiyesimi | SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP Images
Student speaks during the demonstration. South African police moved to disperse students protesting against refusal by Wits University to register those students in arrears with tuition fees. Police Clashed with protesters who were blocking the roads with rubble and disrupting traffic in Johannesburg. Thabo Jaiyesimi | SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP Images

Inherently inaccurate ‘double-ball rounds’ cause deaths and injuries of demonstrators and bystanders.

Among the “less-lethal” weapons that the South African Police Service possesses are “double-ball rounds”, more commonly known by the generic name “rubber bullets”. They consist of rounds containing two hard rubber balls, which are fired from a shotgun.

Manufactured by a number of companies, around the world and in South Africa, the use of these inherently inaccurate weapons in policing protests and public gatherings has changed the lives of many people in South Africa, both through tragic deaths and injuries. 

On 19 March 2018, Thembekile Fana, a 61-year-old man, died during a protest in the Eastern Cape after being shot by police. According to a witness on the scene, Fana, who had been running for cover from police, topped and raised his arms in surrender before being lethally wounded by double-ball rounds fired from a police shotgun. Fana’s son, Andile, noted that he saw 16 shell casings lying around his father’s lifeless body. He further noted that Fana was shot under the arm–further evidence of his surrender in the wake of impending death by CCW. Significantly, Fana was the only breadwinner in his family and was described as a community leader. Research conducted in the wake of this tragedy found that the death of Thembekile Fana appears to have been linked to the use of double-ball rounds at close range. On 10 March 2021, Mthikozisi Ntumba, a 35-year-old civil servant, was shot and killed by police using double-ball rounds as he was leaving a medical clinic in Johannesburg city centre during protests.

Ntumba was leaving his doctor’s rooms, when he caught himself in the crossfire of running protests over historical debt between police and students.51 It was also reported that three students, who were waiting outside the Johannesburg Institute of Engineering and Technology College, were also shot and injured by police using double-ball rounds that day.52 According to a CCTV video of the alleged incident, police violently pursued a group of people standing on a sidewalk and can be clearly seen firing their shotguns indiscriminately as people flee for safety. Four Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) officers were subsequently arrested and charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder. An investigating officer with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate reported that she found “Ntumba’s body with wounds on the left side of his chest, under his armpit and under his left eye”. 

During Ntumba’s postmortem, a ballistics expert “confirmed that the deceased was shot by a rubber bullet at close range”. Ntuma’s case is not the only recent case of the tragic death of a bystander: In 2017, in Bela-Bela, Karabo Kuhmalo, an 11-year old boy, died after being hit in the head by rubber bullets fired by the South African police. Siphesihle Mtsweni, 21, then a student at the Johannesburg Institute of Engineering and Technology was also shot by police using double-ball rounds during the protest that day. Mtsweni, who sustained injuries from the double-bullet rounds to the face, said he dropped out of college later that year due to trauma following the shooting incident. “When I would go back to the college, I was reminded of what happened when I was shot. I am reminded of the dead body I saw,” said Mtsweni. Double-ball rounds are a particularly dangerous type of kinetic impact projectile.

Owing to their design, cartridges that contain multiple projectiles are inaccurate. Once fired, the projectiles separate, and can rapidly disperse, resulting in unpredictable impacts. This inaccuracy only increases over longer distances. As a result of this design, projectiles from double-ball rounds may impact unintended parts of the body, including the head, face or neck, which could cause serious injury. Despite their inherently inaccurate nature, the use of different types of rubber bullets continues to be a key part of police responses to protests and other public gatherings in South Africa. This tendency to rely on less-lethal weapons and equipment for public order policing was addressed in the Panel of Experts Report on Crowd Management, published following the Marikana Commission of Inquiry (a case included in Lethal in Disguise 1) although the recommendations of that Report have not been prioritised.

Manufacture and procurement of double-ball rounds

Double and triple-ball rounds are manufactured and procured by a wide range of companies. Many of the double-ball rounds used in South Africa are manufactured in South Africa, but there are companies manufacturing double- and triple-ball rounds across the world. Among these are believed to be: the Spanish company, Trust Eibarres SA, which manufactures both double and triple-ball rounds for law enforcement; the Turkish company, ZSR; the Czech company, Sellier & Bellot; the Brazilian company, Condor; and the US-based company, Defense Technology, makes a ‘Multiple Rubber Baton Round’ with three projectiles. Several companies within South Africa manufacture a range of kinetic impact projectiles – including the double-ball round.

The most notable historical South African manufacturer of kinetic impact projectiles was Swartklip Products, which became a Denel (now Rheinmetall Denel) subsidiary during the 1990s. In 2014, the then-Chief Executive of Rheinmetall Denel Munition, Norbert Schulze, was confident that “locally produced rubber bullets, flash-bangs and tear gas [would soon be] used by police”. Another manufacturer is Industrial Cartridge, which currently markets ‘2 ball baton’ and ‘3 ball baton’ 12-gauge ammunition among its ‘Law Enforcement Shotshells’ range and reported to have seen “high demand for less lethal ammunition for crowd control, with orders from South African entities taking up much of its production capacity” in 2019. That same year, the South African Police Service published a tender to supply “shotgun, 12 gauge/bore baton double ball, soft silicone, smokeless propellant, orange to the South African Police Service: nationally for a period of three (3) years.” 

In July 2020, the successful bidder, IT Empowerment Technologies, was awarded a three-year R30.5 million contract. Although the contract between the SAPS and IT Empowerment Technologies was cancelled later in 2020, it is unclear if the tender was re-issued or if a previous supplier has been contracted instead of IT Empowerment Technologies. Civil society actors in South Africa have repeatedly criticised the nature of the use of these kinetic impact projectiles within South Africa. Despite this, police forces continue to procure new stocks of double-ball rounds. The lack of transparency and clear global standards regarding the manufacture of these weapons around the world, their testing before purchase by governments and their procurement creates immense challenges for organizations seeking to monitor abuses related to these weapons and the fight for justice by victims and their families.