BACK STORY: I didn't think he would really throw the baby
HeraldLIVE photographer Werner Hills recalls the chilling moment when father threw his baby from roof
“My heart skipped a beat. Then I felt it dropping. I was looking at a father threatening to throw his baby from the roof of his shack, trying to make sense of why anybody would want to put a child in harm’s way.
“But till that moment when he lifted his young daughter high above his head and threw her, I actually did not think he would do it. Or rather, I hoped he would not.
“I heard the crowd shouting at the man, but only later found out they were encouraging him to throw the baby.
“When metro police constable Luyolo Nojulumba caught the baby, that’s when my heart dropped. As a father I thought of my two daughters and how I would do anything to protect them.“Even while this was playing through my mind, my photographer mind went into overdrive, realising I had to document as much of the unfolding event as possible.
“Backtracking to hours before, we received a call at The Herald’s news desk that shacks were being demolished at the Joe Slovo housing settlement on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, lying on the R75 just outside Despatch.
“It has mostly low-cost housing, but a couple of weeks ago residents started noticing that plots were being demarcated on an open tract of land.“The average size of a plot was 6mx10m.
“By the time we arrived, police and metro police were already keeping a close watch as municipal workers started breaking down the illegal shacks that had sprung up on the demarcated spaces. Only about 10 shacks were still standing, but I am not sure how many had been demolished at that stage.
“As the shacks were taken apart, a Nyala and the police vehicles started moving towards a koppie, together with a water canon.
“Earlier, the crowd tried to blockade the roads with branches and basically anything they could find. At one stage they even tried to stand in front of the Nyala to prevent it from proceeding, but police pulled them out of the way.“The situation was so volatile, and from previous experience I knew how to keep my distance but still have a good view of what was happening.
“The shouting and gesturing aimed at the police intensified, and at this stage the crowd was a couple of hundreds of people strong.
“Next thing there was the bang of a stun grenade, and people started dispersing, some of them returning to where the first shacks were demolished.
“Then a policeman told us about the man threatening to throw his child from the roof. I gathered my colleague, videographer Annelisa Swana, and we rushed to where we hoped to find the man. Other residents pointed out the shack, but there was no sign of him or the baby.“As soon as the police started moving back into the area, though, the man jumped back on the roof, swinging the baby by her one arm and leg.
“I saw the police very strategically park their vehicles around the shack, get out and form a human chain around it.
“An officer jumped on the roof of the Nyala and tried to negotiate with the man. I could not hear what was said between them.
“There were crazy, frightening moments as all eyes were locked onto the roof. And all the while the crowd was shouting encouragement at the man.
“I would also learn only later that the mother of the child was also in the crowd, allegedly also egging him on.“Then, in a sudden move, the officer jumped from the Nyala’s roof onto the shack. In that moment, the man lifted his child high above his head and threw her from the roof.
“In those split seconds the crowd shouted ‘yo, yo, yo’ and then there was pandemonium.
“And this is when my heart literally dropped. But all the while I was snapping away. After all, I had to stay professional.“The minute the dad released the baby, the officer tackled him. They wrestled on the roof of that tiny shack, because the dad was not just gonna give up. There were a few minutes when I actually heard creaking sounds, and I thought there was no way it would hold their weight.
“Stones started raining on the policemen and their vehicles, and the cop with the baby jumped inside the Nyala with her.“My mind was in turmoil for a long time after that, trying to find answers. But reality is that you will never know the desperation of another human without walking in their shoes.
“That night when I got home, I gave my two daughters, aged seven and three, an extra long hug. I tell you, for the longest time they would have gotten away with being naughty, basically anything. I hoped and prayed that I would never find myself in that man’s shoes.
“Then I remembered a curious thing. I did not once see the baby cry, even when she was hurled through the air. Looking back on my pics, I see almost complete trust of a child in her father. Maybe it is something I wanted to see?"
• The charges against the father have been changed to child abuse. The man – who cannot be named to protect his daughter’s identity – appeared in the New Brighton Magistrate’s Court on Monday and initially faced a charge of attempted murder. The case has been postponed.