This article was written by a policeman whose identity is known to Daily Maverick. He has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. While we always prefer to publish op-ed pieces under a person’s name, we feel this message is important.
President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of how we have been trained to protect, to serve, to save lives. He told us this was our opportunity, and our privilege, to do just that. And he sent us out with his blessing to help the people of this beautiful, struggling country.
But the task that the President has given us, with his characteristic wisdom and humility, is unimaginably complex. And perplexing.
I have been a police officer for 20 years. I am trained to fight crime. I wear a bulletproof vest and a loaded sidearm. I am trained to use a variety of weapons. I carry pepper spray and handcuffs. I am fit and ready to fight. I wear heavy boots. I drive a vehicle with blue lights and a siren. I have been shot at more times than I can remember. I have been taught to impose the law without fear or favour.
Today I used my years of training to order two hawkers selling beaded-wire creations at an intersection to pack up and go home. “Home” for them is under the bridge nearby.
Today I was called to an elderly woman who is isolating all alone: her cat died this morning and she is threatening suicide.
Today I had an argument with a foreign gentleman whose English is poor and whose language I do not know. He wants to keep his small shop open, selling cigarettes and cellphone accessories at the empty taxi rank. His shop does not fall within the definition of a grocery store and we closed it down, ending any chance he has of an income.
I stopped a car with three people without masks in it and turned them back home, impervious to their scowls and protestations. I refused to certify a true copy because it is not essential and the person should never have come to the police station in the first place.
I had a long conversation with a group of homeless people who are starving but are not allowed to walk about to look through the rubbish bins of the wealthy. I bought them bread and tinned meat for today. Tomorrow they are on their own again.
Today I answered innumerable questions as to why I could not issue a permit to allow people to travel. Today I debated endlessly with colleagues what the regulations and directives actually mean. Today I pondered what on earth I am doing.
But today I also had to register the death of a 22-day-old baby; today I faced anger and threats from a gangster-ridden community as I assisted in the arrest of a young man in a serious assault case. Today I listened to my colleagues on the radio calling for help as people hurled rocks at them. Today I chased a car that had been involved in a robbery and was told to expect that the occupants were armed.
Policing is at the best of times a mix of 90% boredom and 10% terror. But under a Covid-19 lockdown, that mix has quickly evolved. The ratio is now perhaps 90% patience, compassion, concern and frustration, and 10% terror. And yes, switching between compassion and aggression, between listening and reacting, between engaging and surviving, that does not always happen smoothly, nor can any human being be expected to get it right all the time.
The police are the face of lockdown. We are the people who stop you from going to work, tell you that you cannot walk your depressed dog, order you off your bicycle and back into the warren of your home. We close shops. We order homeless people to stay in one destitute place. We order children off the streets and into their shacks. We stop you from earning. We stop you exercising. We stop you visiting your friends.
It is unlikely that you will have contact with any other member of the government service during your lockdown, apart from members of the police service.
Our President asked us to conduct ourselves with compassion. Our Minister told us to crack down hard. Our Commissioner told us we will be working with the army. The army carries live ammunition in automatic rifles and drives in khaki landmine-proof vehicles. Who are we fighting?
There is a terrible resonance with our history of repression when we watch videos of the army on patrol in the townships. Our collective hearts lurch with shattered memories as we hear of policemen beating people into submission. Asking someone to show their “permit” to be on the street sends a cold shiver through our souls.
Who are we fighting? None but ourselves.
Our President has courageously made South Africa one of the swiftest (if not in fact the fastest) country to go into lockdown after its first reported Covid-19 case. The speed and courage of that reaction is largely responsible for what remains a slow rate of increase in infections and deaths. It has allowed us time to prepare. It has given us hope.
But lockdown only works if there is compliance. No matter how unbearably hard that may be to endure. Or morally challenging that may be to enforce. Yes, the police have behaved with frustration at times. Yes, we deserve to be roundly criticised for this. Cellphone videos of incidents of brutality will always be widely shared and watched. No one takes a video of a police officer politely asking you to put your mask on.
The average policeman and woman are trying his or her very best to implement the new complicated set of laws in the spirit that our President has asked of us. The regulations are vague in places, require sensible interpretation in others, demand immediate enforcement and are at the core of saving the lives of ordinary people.
The police are the new social workers. Working under untested rules. In an environment that feels as surreal and foreign as a lunarscape. In a time that will surely go down in the history of humanity as a turning point. DM/MC
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