Almost any six-year-old wants to be a policeman at some point or the other. To them a police official represents the epitome of good: a real-life superhero, the personification of what cartoons and comics define as just. To us adults, particularly after the events at Marikana, a blue uniform seems, more often than not, to represent something far more sinister and oppressive.
I work late night radio, so part of the hazards I have to face while driving around Sandton at unholy hours are drunken revellers and the police. I get pulled over regularly; my dreadlocks and beard don’t help in the “appearance of a respectable citizen” department. Each time I exit my vehicle as the search of my messy car ensues, a cold sense of trepidation descends over me. Not because I fear that they might encounter some illicit drug or weapon, but because I know that they are baying for blood and a bribe. The hint at the fact that I host a show on radio is inevitably followed by a hasty retreat.
Why do the 250,000 men and women employed by the state to keep us free from crime and enforce safety and security, inspire so much fear and mistrust? Perhaps because the relationship between South African citizens and their police force is steeped in history and is about as complex as the most tumultuous of marriages.
We need an effective police force; this is an undisputed fact in a land where crime is one of the largest burdens we, the citizenry, bear. The only line between the criminals that terrorise our communities and the remainder of us – generally law abiding citizens – should be a very thin, blue line. Our tumultuous history with this thin blue line dates to before 1994, where the police force was naught but a paramilitary force employed to subdue troublemaking upstarts in black townships. Now that the police have no other task but legitimate law enforcement, their legacy is under perpetual attack. No single week goes by without yet another police scandal, murder/suicide or assault making headline news.
It now emerges with each passing day that the self-defence red herring by the police at Marikana, in an attempt to justify the deaths of 34 workers, is nothing but hogwash. Greg Marinovich’s investigation, forensic evidence and autopsies point to the majority of the casualties being shot in the back. Some are believed to have been crushed by police vehicles, and further reports assert workers in police custody are being subjected to police torture. The proverbial icing on the cake is our very own National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega emphatically stating that the police are not sorry for the 112 casualties at Marikana. Amid reports of live ammunition being OK’d at the highest level, the police have returned to their nefarious, brutal reputation of the past.
It is an untenable reality as we, simpletons who sleep behind high walls, electric fences and lock and key need to know that the flashing blue lights and blue uniforms that patrol the nights are the good guys, out to protect us. When those old fogies that moan about the noise decide to call the cops to shut down your party at two in the morning, they do so because the police are more than name-taking, ass-kicking gun slingers. They are there as a moral authority, an extension of the state’s enforcement of law and order, an example to six year olds and adults alike.
Sadly, the uniformed vigilantes that are shooting to kill miner upstarts along our platinum belt, or those that raid licenced shebeens and beat up patrons are far removed from what we actually need. The fish rots from the head, so the cliché goes, and this analogy is no truer than with our police force.
Jackie Selebi is supposed to be serving 15 years’ imprisonment for corruption in accepting bribes and making poor friendship choices. Of course, his kidneys conked in and will allow him the pseudo-freedom of medical parole rather than real prison. Then we had Bheki Cele as his successor. This fedora gunslinger with a natural talent for providing the press with the most memorable sound bites yet spoke an excellent game, assuring us that criminals will not have a moment’s rest. Like a character conceived in some Hollywood studio with a penchant for a hybridised, noir western/gangster genre, he continued along Selebi’s path of disappointment. Now we wait to hear finality on his and Roux Shabangu’s alleged illicit dealings.
Phiyega stepped in, touted as a motherly hen, tough, fiercely protecting her chicks form criminal wolves, but gently affording law-abiding citizens her affections. Her last words on the Marikana incident, at the two police official’s memorial service, definitely did not give that impression. “We are not sorry!” was a very dangerous utterance on her behalf, particularly in light of the fact that the investigation into the incident is far from complete. We are back in the insanity of “shoot to kill”, which at first sounded cool, edgy and effective to the majority of victims of crime, but soon left a bitter taste after a three year old was shot in Alexandria by an over enthusiastic cop that thought the toddler was a gun wielding 28 year old.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has yet to answer serious allegations of unlawfully dipping into a “slush fund” for building a wall worth R 200,000 around his compound in Kwa-Zulu Natal. February saw 16-year-old Thato Mokoka succumb to the repeated gun fire of a student constable’s R5 rifle. He apparently continued to point the weapon at the youngster despite the raid being called off with the youth. Questions were also asked around whether the student constable was supposed to be in possession of a firearm in the first instance, as a compromised mental state has been alleged.
The preceding narrative does not even come close to illustrating the magnitude of negative attention the police have drawn to themselves recently. What it does expose, though, is the reason why more South Africans lose faith in those tasked with maintaining order and justice.
Unlike major corporations, negative media does not lead to a loss of profits or market share for the police. Instead, fewer and fewer people have faith in the South African Police Service’s ability to enforce the law, even as they continue to fail to maintain discipline within their ranks. More severely, how can a community be expected to respect the authority of a police force that appears to lack any legitimacy in its own morality?
A society that views its police force in this light cannot be expected to dial 10111 in search of justice. In fact they might be told to “f*** off!” Instead, more and more South Africans are resorting to purchasing law enforcement. These private security companies are mushrooming and making a killing. Kangaroo court, street justice necklacing and beatings are becoming more prevalent in our rural areas and townships.
This is not a viable alternative. We are paying taxes, taxes that pay the salaries of the nation’s largest employer, put in place to protect us. But such incidents will continue as more members of society fail to distinguish between the thugs in their neighbourhoods and the police.
Apart from the obvious pitfalls of a community taking justice into its own hands, there is yet another consequence of negative press about the police: the perception South Africans have of our police force as no more than a symbol of corruption, inefficiency and mistrust if continued trends continue. No one respects a force that is tasked with the responsibility of protecting the public from crime if the very organisation seems to be teaming with criminals. The dire consequence of this disregard for the police will extend from open criticism of the legitimacy of police officials all the way to a blatant disregard for law and order.
The blue uniform and shiny badge have lost the sheen of upholding societal morality and decency. They now descend to the lowest rung of society. We look at the police force as complicit in criminal phenomena. The overriding impression that this leaves with a society is that the blue uniform now easily identifies criminals. Instead of telling us who the good guys are, it now shouts – murdering, lazy officials, easily corrupted with folded bank notes.
People by their very nature, only respect the authority of those who have earned it. We need criminals to quiver in their boots, not because they are worried about where they will find their next bribe booty or because justice only takes the form of a bullet in the brain, but much rather in fear of being caught and having to pay in years for their crimes.
Only then will we, like the six year olds of the world, idealise our police again. All we expect is that our police force will do its job as prescribed by law, ethics, the Constitution and what decency dictates. In other words, we will idealise them once they start doing their jobs the way they are supposed to. DM
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Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
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