PRESS STATEMENT: How did Robyn Montsumi die in the custody of Mowbray Police Station

Elma Robyn Montsumi

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sisonke, the National Movement of Sex Workers and Triangle Project are calling for an investigation into the death of Elma Robyn Montsumi.

On Thursday, 9 April 2020 Robyn Montsumi, a 39-year old sex worker and SWEAT service user was arrested. The charge was possession of drugs. She was detained at Mowbray police station. The expectation was that she would be released on bail in terms of the lockdown regulations, but that did not happen.

Robin’s partner reported that he and some of her friends from the area were able to communicate with her by shouting from the outside and she would call back on how she was doing. They reported she said on the Saturday that she felt ill and was vomiting. According to her friends she did not respond Sunday morning 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.  Our lobbying officer went inside the police station to inquire and she was simply told that Robyn had been taken to Groote Schuur hospital. Robyn’s family on Tuesday, went to Mowbray police station and was told that the detective who came to the station just before noon to book Robyn found her body in the cells.

The news of Robyn’s death is devasting. We knew her as a passionate activist aware of her rights. Those who interacted with her prior to her arrest remember her as being upbeat and the reports of an apparent suicide are baffling.

It became clear in the lockdown that South Africans are being policed differently, in most of the reported cases it seems to be based on race and class divides. Our research and many years of working with sex workers on the ground have shown that sex workers in South Africa experience vulnerabilities to systemic human rights violations and outright violence, discrimination, and harassment at the hands of the police.

We want to know why bail was not fixed for Robyn for offences in terms of Schedule 2 Part I (which includes possession) as per the lockdown regulations issued by the Minister of Justice on 31 March 2020. It was reported by her friends that she said she was ill. Did she report that she was ill, what is it noted by police officers and if so, what was the nature of her illness and was she provided with medical care?

SWEAT has referred Robyn’s case to the Human Rights Commission  (HRC), because it also forms part of the HRC’s broader investigation into the persecution of homeless people in the Mowbray area during the time the police were trying to pressurise people to voluntarily go the Strandfontein camp.

Noting the increased incidents of gender based violence during lockdown SWEAT has also submitted an official complaint to the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in terms of their mandate  and role to monitor and investigate gender related violations by the police and many others.

Robyn was a sex worker and part of the LGBTQI+ family – marginalised key populations whose deaths and violations are often ignored. We celebrate her life, mourn her passing and want to honour her memory by giver her the justice she deserves.

Endorsed by:

For more information:

Megan Lessing

Media Officer, SWEAT / 0677831383

Lunga Luthuli

Media Liasison, Sisonke