Defend Truth


Welcome to South Africa, a security state

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

We live in a security state now. It’s official. Don’t believe me? Just try walking up to a member of the Johannesburg Metro Police, and telling them you’re @PigSpotter.

If the statements coming from JMPD spokesman Wayne Minnaar are to be believed, the police don’t understand crowdsourcing, how information spreads on social media, and even why it’s a bad idea to anger the already mistrustful and jaded public. And that’s not even the worst part. It appears as if the cops have adopted a “shoot first and check if it’s okay with the law later” attitude. Very worrying, especially when you consider who has the gun and handcuffs and the authority to completely seal off William Nicol at 17:00 on a Friday afternoon.

The police reckon @PigSpotter can’t possibly be working alone – he provides way too much information. There must be a gang of ’em. And it’s so detailed too! Smells of an insider. And let’s not forget that they’ve promised to arrest the person (persons) tweeting information that allows “criminals” to evade capture.

I can understand if the cops don’t get what crowdsourcing and social networking are. Almost no one in power seems to understand it. But surely 15 minutes spent simply observing how Twitter works should quickly enlighten them as to how @PigSpotter gets his information. Cops set up a roadblock or mobile radar trap. Driver sees it. Driver tweets @PigSpotter. @PigSpotter generously lets all his followers know where cops are. It will be interesting to see how Minnaar will handle this once he realises that, well, thousands of Twitter users are @PigSpotter’s co-conspirators. Is he going to get all of them arrested?

To be perfectly honest, I do sympathise with the police, and am very grateful for the service they provide. It’s thankless work, and in this country, the workload is enormous. In July, a would-be housebreaker startled me as I sat in a friend’s house, by sticking his head into the living room through an open window. Two police officers arrived within minutes of receiving my breathless phone call. It was reassuring to know that, had the thief decided to shoot me in the face instead of fleeing, the cops would have arrived just as the blood collecting around my body cooled. However, there’s also the inescapable fact that there is a general attitude of mistrust of the police among the nation’s citizenry. And as much as Aki Anastasiou and others have entreated us to show the police the proper respect, it isn’t as simple as that.

The police have earned, dare I say, the “pig” label. How many times haven’t we read of people being mistreated by members of the police, of bribes being solicited, of shots being fired at motorists from blue-light brigades? We as the public can’t really help but feel that the cops aren’t always on our side. Now, we’ve found a way to express that: @PigSpotter.

Instead of reassuring the public that they are here to protect and serve, the police have promised to find and arrest the Twitter “vigilante”, thereby immediately cementing his cult hero status. They’re going about this investigation by randomly searching phones at roadblocks for references to @PigSpotter. This isn’t “Shoot to Kill”. This is “hose them all down with machine gun fire, and we’ll eventually hit the guy we’re after”.  Although the callers to 702 who had suffered this indignity were rightly furious, I found it quite hilarious (maybe because they haven’t unjustly invaded my privacy yet). If the police haven’t as much as grasped how Twitter works, it’s fantastic to imagine that they’d be able to snatch a phone at a roadblock, access a client like UberTwitter and ascertain from the garbled mess they see that they had at last caught @PigSpotter’s Cliff.

Even if they manage to apprehend this highly dangerous criminal, it’s difficult to see how they’d manage to get a conviction against Cliff. Let alone the charges like “obstruction of justice”, how would they manage to convince a magistrate that their collective dignity had been “unlawfully, intentionally and seriously” impaired, by being called pigs? People do it all over the world. It comes with the job. I did a quick search, and these are some of the printable versions of police nicknames, from places like Nova Scotia, the underbelly of London, Portugal and America: The Big Big Big, bobbies, bullymen, the fuzz, rozzers, cinder dicks, dogs, the doughnut shop, scuffers and smurfs. And yes, it’s supposed to denote an aspect of rebellion with regards to law enforcement. Consider this choice quote, from Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented”. This is where the “the law does not concern itself with trifles” principle comes in handy.

The sad part is that we would dearly love to respect and cherish our police officers, for the right reasons. Instead, we’re faced with a force that seems increasingly to rely on jackboot tactics, often in acts that impinge on the dignity and rights of citizens. We’re supposed to trust and respect the same cops who think they have the authority to stop people at roadblocks and search their phones without a warrant. We’re supposed to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the same cops who descend on journalists and haul them off to Nelspruit interrogation rooms on frivolous charges. We’re meant to do our civic duty and smile respectfully when the cops shoot out our tyres because we didn’t get out of the way of a blue light cavalcade fast enough.

Who will protect us from the protectors?


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