The recent shooting of singer-rapper Khuli Chana allegedly by South African police in a case of mistaken identity on Monday, reminded me of an incident in my life I would rather forget. One I do not often speak of because it left me feeling completely powerless. What triggered the memory of my brief run in with the police was the part in the story where police where waiting at a garage/filling station in Midrand, and the police tried unsuccessfully to flag the rapper down, and then shot him accidentally. That part made me feel grateful to be alive.
Years ago, a four friends and I were driving home in the early hours of Saturday morning when we decided to stop at a local garage (petrol filling station)to get some snacks. I waited in the car listening to music while the rest of them went inside the convenient store to make purchases. Suddenly, alone in the car, I was surrounded by police who demanded my driver’s license, which on that night I had unfortunately forgotten at home, a fact i didn’t know until that moment when they asked for it. They proceeded to search my car and decided to arrest me. At which point I didn’t protest, or fight verbally or physically. However when my friends saw the police leading me to the back of the van, they protested demanding to know why the police were arresting me. The police lost their temper and violently threw all of them at the back of the van, while I let in front. They drove around with us for a while and eventually dropped us off at a local police station where were to spend the night.
The police women who searched us were more than liberal in their handling of our private regions for lack of a better euphemism during the search all while saying repeatedly: You know your rights eh? you know your rights? We’ll show you your rights, keep talking and we’ll show you rights eh Sargent?” they said to much laughter.
One of our friends, a man, was beaten by police right in front of us for no-reason, some cops periodically jumped on the counter-tables aggressively growling at us in intimidation. A scene which would have been comical under any other circumstances. After they were satisfied with our silence, they locked us up and we were released the next morning. I however, the driver of the car, had to appear in court the next Monday morning and was more than surprised at the police’s version of events.
‘I was driving fast during the night”
“They tried to flag me down and I failed to stop. A chase ensued”
None of what they said was true. Even the truth of my lack of a driver’s license was omitted in their statement . There was never a “chase” especially since they were in unmarked cars. But it was my word against theirs in court. My friends had all but ‘disappeared”.
That incident opened my eyes to the real workings of law enforcement in South Africa, and more than ever made me fear the police – because they could clearly break the law, blatantly lie, repeatedly against the very citizens they were meant to protect. I grew up with the idea, that law enforcers, police by default should lead by example and stick within the limitations of the law. But the opposite is true. Police have complete authority over you and your person, and if they cannot arrest you with blows, these days it seems they will stop you with bullets. If I had money or courage, perhaps I would have challenged them however I didn’t. I was scared of what they could do to me, those three cops who spent the whole night driving with me in the car. It left me feeling powerless. mute. dispensable. I was ashamed. And yes my views are completely subjective.
So this case makes me wonder how true the police’s version of the events is. I do wonder, because if they could lie about an incident as “trivial” as mine, why wouldn’t they lie now, especially in a case where shots have been fired? I mean we have enough evidence coming out from the Marikana Commission that illustrates just how far they will go to conceal the truth which was broadcast all around the world for all to see. How do you justify that?
I honesty think its a sad day that we’ve come to today where we view police with suspicion, though it’s not surprising given our history. Yet one always hopes that instead of getting worse, things will improve, progressively become better; that somehow with each day we could all somehow regain our humanity and be kinder to one another. Yet the words police and criminal have become interchangeable in South Africa. From street traders to miners to ordinary citizens. I don’t think that everyone employed at the South African Police Service is criminally corrupt, there are good cops. However I have encountered enough of them more who are disproportionately aggressive, violent and rude to call it a trend.
In some ways perhaps the police are a mirror of the society they serve. They are like ticking time bombs, ready explode at the slightest provocation, like some South Africans. So how do we deal with this situation? How do we regain trust in the police? Better salaries, training, improved working conditions, resources, capacity? counselling? fewer guns? all of the above?
In the end I know as well as you do that accidents do happen, mistakes and errors in judgement do occur, in any profession including law enforcement. But I think we’re treading on dangerous ground when the mistakes routinely become lies and the truth becomes a criminal offence.