Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 5 April 2013

Dear guardians: Please stop ‘protecting us’

The seven policemen accused of killing Andries Tatane learned their fate just a day before Good Friday: acquittals across the board. If this is the state’s present to the country for Easter, I’d like to be taken off its Christmas gift list.

The judgment handed down in the Tatane case is straight out of the theatre of the bizarre: no policeman is guilty and the judge made special mention of how the deceased was “no hero”. From where I’m sitting it sounds an awful lot like victim-blaming.

The NPA released a statement on Wednesday detailing why it was unable to successfully prosecute the accused. The NPA has thrown in the towel as far as appealing the judge’s decision is concerned, but it might consider prosecuting some of the witnesses for perjury. I hope this comes as some relief to Tatane’s loved ones.

At the time of Tatane’s death the minister of police asked for patience and time for the police to improve its crowd-control techniques. The SAPS obviously needs time to absorb and assimilate international best-practice into its operations.

For example, rubber bullets are meant to be fired into the ground and thereafter to ricochet into the lower bodies of protestors, their velocity having been sufficiently dampened in the process. Andries Tatane was the unfortunate guinea-pig of a SAPS ballistics test, confirming that firing rubber bullets directly into a person’s body at point-blank range could lead to death.

The police are slow learners but they will get there eventually. Any week now the minister will confirm that suspects are meant to be transported inside a vehicle and not dragged behind it. We’re terribly grateful to the Macia family for the sacrifice of their son in this regard. Make no mistake, it is a sacrifice: the state has absolutely no intention of paying damages.

President Jacob Zuma is also playing his part in giving the police every opportunity for on-the-job training. In his recent state of the nation address he committed extra resources to stopping violent service delivery protests in their tracks. There will even be a special court process to fast-track the prosecution of non-heroes like Tatane.

The police and security clusters have had a run of bad luck lately. Footage that would have vindicated their role in Marikana seems to have just disappeared. Corruption Watch has been harassing the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) to such an extent that some policemen have now been arrested and others will have to radically change their modus operandi.

It’s gratifying to see that some policemen aren’t so easily intimidated and remain committed to their core values.

Please excuse my excessive eructation of bile this week. I’m trying really hard not to yield to bitterness but I am tired. It has been a clogged toilet of a year so far and this last week has been particularly awful.

Marikana, Tatane and Macia are all symptoms of the same disease: an inner circle of securocrats and power-brokers in the Zuma administration that has entrenched a culture of violence and impunity in the police.

The dysfunction in the police force didn’t start with this administration – it didn’t even start in 1994 – but it appears to have become measurably worse in a relatively short space of time.

The dragging of Mido Macia is not an isolated case: court interpreter Morgan Motlhala was dragged by a policeman in a marked car just a week later, in mid-March. His crime was to offer advice to a friend who had been assaulted by the very same policeman a few minutes earlier. Allegedly, of course.

Until the policeman concerned has had his day in court nothing is certain. Mr Motlhala was allegedly run over by the police vehicle, over his alleged legs. The policeman allegedly asked Mr Motlhala if he knew that police officers were killing people, just before he allegedly grabbed Mr Motlhala by the collar and allegedly dragged him a few dozen metres before allegedly running him over.

I don’t want to allege that the police are on a steep learning curve because that might be slanderous. But if the alleged policeman was either issuing a threat or a boast to Mr Motlhala, it would seem that he’s not very good at killing.

The minister of police is taking all of these allegations very seriously and has visited Mr Motlhala in hospital. He has subsequently announced that the names of all new recruits will be publicly available.

That should come as a huge relief to me, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that the police in my town are still slow learners. I’m still subject to subtle harassment, pressure and insinuation too often at roadblocks. I’m still hiding my wallet and I still don’t trust the police.

The scary thing is that my experiences are better than those of many people in South Africa. The really scary thing is that there is nothing to protect you if the police want to break bits off you. Morgan Motlhala became involved in the first (alleged) instance of police brutality because he is the chairman of the community policing forum.

I’d like to pause and try and put all the puzzle pieces together. A policeman, after threatening the chairman of the community policing forum with death, used a marked police vehicle to run the man over. Allegedly, et cetera et cetera and so forth.

I’ve also written about how much money the police are costing taxpayers through unprofessional, negligent and criminal behaviour. To paraphrase, every person in South Africa (because we are all taxpayers) is paying money to fund the police force, and this force may or may not cause an injury or loss to any one of us. Should this happen, more of our tax money will go to paying for the legal defence of the police force.

In even more other words, your money pays for the state to possibly harm you, with increasing and depressing regularity. Should this happen to you, more of your money will go to the legal defence of the state. The state, of course, will be defended by the state, so at least there’s some employment creation – it’s not a total waste.

Should you sue the state in a civil case for damages, some more money will be spent in defence of the state (by the state). Of course, the president has also committed more resources to quelling service delivery protests. (I am aware that he’s only targeting “violent” service delivery protests but I’m worried that some members of the force don’t quite know the fine points of the strategy.)

In a moment of frustration I announced, on Twitter, that I would set up a legal defence fund for Rose Tatane, should she choose to sue the state in a civil case.

Twitter can be your confessional and your incriminating transcript, and this was not my best plan. It wasn’t that smart to coerce my friends to put their money up so that the state could spend a bit more of our money on another legal defence.

For the record, I have R2,000 pledged to Ms Tatane, and counting. It’s not much, but I will still offer it to her to do with as she wishes, or to give it away as she sees fit. If she wants to use it to sue the state she has my best wishes but it’s probably not the best use of the money.

So what can we do, other than wait around for the current lot to get it right, or eventually a new lot to come in and hope that they fix the mess? I honestly don’t know. We can start by committing to being more lawful ourselves because corruption really is a two-way street.

We can know our rights (from the link below) to deter a policeman from soliciting a bribe. We can report any corrupt behaviour directly to Corruption Watch because it is capable of making a huge difference. The organisation is committed to documenting every reported instance of corruption, and every story counts. If we want to kill the vampire of corruption and seal it in its coffin we are going to need as many nails as possible.

Most importantly, we can realise that the violence of the police state is a common enemy, and we have to stand in solidarity against it. Being good and moral, or even on the right side of the law, will not make us proof against the violence. Being resolute and genuinely taking an interest in everyone’s safety just might buy us our own. DM

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