I’m going away for a couple of weeks. First for a holiday, then to a Quaker farm in Zimbabwe. Wish me luck! In the meantime, here are three stories from personal experiences about the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Last week the NGO I work for ran a workshop to teach community activists how they can use the Firearms Control Act to make their areas safer. (The upshot is basically that the law allows for individuals to be declared ‘unfit’ or ‘incompetent’ to carry a gun. I’ve never met anyone who’s fit to carry a gun.) The area we were covering is called East Rand – it’s on the east side of Joburg. The East Rand suffered 712 murders last year. The workshop was held in Brakpan police station (28 murders last year).
Being a moderately law-abiding citizen (at least in the areas where it makes sense to be law abiding), I’m not very familiar with the insides of a police station – UK or any other. So it was with some false-confidence that I strode into Brakpan police station. The nice lady behind the desk told me she didn’t know where the workshop was but there was a big room in another building where it might be. I said, “How do I get there?” She said, “Go round the back through the gates, through the first door on the left and then round a bit more.” So I stepped out onto the street, went round the back, wandered through some open gates with three prisoners lounging against them, alone, and into another building. No-one stopped me. I walked through the corridors, past police officers leaning against walls, past the open doors of little offices. Most of them were empty but occasionally there were people in there. They didn’t seem very busy. No-one asked me who I was or why I was there. At one point, the sounds of Neil Diamond filled a corridor, coming out of another office. Police officers were smoking in the corridors and offices, which is illegal in SA. There just didn’t seem to be any work happening. Police stations are supposed to feel safe – the safest place you can be, but Brakpan felt no safer than any other public place in SA. In fact, the building I work in, which is stuffed with little NGOs, feels much safer than Brakpan police station.
The police here have a poor reputation. Low morale, low pay, badly trained, etc etc. As the day went on, I got more glimpses into this. During the workshop, a scene developed in the carpark outside the windows of our room. Three kids had been nicked for theft. All the stuff was on display in the carpark. It would have been an unremarkable scene except that at one point one of the guys I work with looked out the window and said, “They’re kicking one of the kids.” Until then I’d been encouraging people to concentrate on what we were doing, but Needs Must, so I got my camera and waited for more violence. Thank god there wasn’t any more. But the treatment of these kids was fairly dire. All the assembled onlookers, about 15 of them, stood in the shade. But the kids were kept out in the hot hot sun all handcuffed to each other. One of the kids kept sitting down, he was crying and he didn’t seem well. Every time he sat on the floor the police men shouted at him to get up. Now I know I’m soft, but he was just a kid.
There was also the massive irony that we were teaching gun law, yet we could see that many policemen around us were not carrying their guns in a legal way. (For men, they must be carried in a holster. Ladies, feel free to pop yours in your handbag). Thembani and Vincent, the two amazing guys I work with are experts in this subject, and decided to raise the issue with the police chief. First the Big Cheese said that the police were using internal holsters, but it was clear that the guns were actually just tucked into their belts (it’s so incredibly easy to swipe a gun out of a belt – I could have done it loads of times that day). When T & V pushed the point a bit more the Big Cheese got pissed off and started talking in Afrikaans. Wanker. And the second irony is that SAPS loves our NGO, cos the police are so often the victims of gun violence.
So, I left Brakpan police station feeling disheartened. How is SA going to enforce gun law if the police can’t be arsed?
Second story: After a recent Quaker Meeting, a woman we’ll call Pam told us a horrific story. On Friday night, she and another Quaker had been driving home when they came upon a body in the road next to a car. (I’ve seen more revolting RTAs in Joburg in six months than I’ve seen in my life, so it’s not a huge shock that she came upon this scene.) There was no police or ambulance at the scene, so she drove to the nearest police station in Booysens (404 carjackings last year) to get help.
Her friend ran into the police station, then came out again 10 minutes later distressed. All of the on-duty policemen were round the back of the station having a party. Both women then went round and insisted that someone attended the accident, but the policemen told them to go away. Pam demanded to speak to the officer in charge and the Big Cheese came out of the station. She asked him to attend the accident, or send someone else to. He said he wouldn’t. She kept insisting until he said that he would charge Pam with the murder of the victim if she didn’t go away.
Unfortunately for him, Pam is an attorney, so promptly started taking down his name, rank, number, etc, at which point he hit her in the face. She is a feisty lady, so they ended up having a bit of a fight, and her clothes got ripped.
At that point she got in her car and drove to another police station (Parkview – 27 carjackings last year) where the officers were very helpful. Now an investigation has started and important people are phoning her, including the chief-police-type-person in the state of Gauteng (where Joburg is situated).
So there’s the awfulness of what happened to her, and the fact that she still doesn’t know when the original victim was attended to. Also shocking is that even when she went to the second police station, and even when the chief-police-person called her, they assumed that her car had hit the victim. Why else would a white lady come to the police station to report the crime? Civic duty / compassion / human instinct are apparently not plausible. But, for me, there’s the fact that some justice may be seen because of who she is, and the fact she has clout. For less distinguished people, there would be no such justice.
Third (nice) SAPS story. Two nights ago I was lying in my gorgeous bed, feeling gorgeous cool breeze as I fell asleep, then BANG BANG – POLICE, OPEN THE DOOR. Shit! My bedroom window is right over the door. This house has never been burgled. It’s the only house that anyone knows of in Joburg that’s never been broken into. I sneak a look out the window and I see men with long guns. Then I hear Monique, whose house this is, call out, “You are not police.” (It would never cross my privileged mind to question this.) And I’m thinking, “So the time has come…” Then I hear quieter words and, thank god (sort of) that it is indeed the police. I can’t hear what’s being said but the policemen start searching our garden with their huge guns. And there are loads of them – 11 apparently. So then they leave. Monique told me that the police thought that there might have been a break-in in progress because our front gate was open. Such is life in Joburg.