Opinionista Nicky Falkof 16 May 2013

In police we (don’t) trust

Someone tried to hijack me last night. Fortunately he didn’t try very hard: banging on my window while shouting and claiming to have an imaginary gun isn’t enough to make me give up my prized 1994 Corolla. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a bit shaken, though, or that it didn’t take a while for my pulse to get back to normal.

What’s interesting about this event is not that it happened, or people’s responses to it (thanks very much but I don’t think trauma counselling is necessary quite yet), but my own reaction. After speeding off down Empire Road like my exhaust pipe was on fire, I ranted about it on Facebook, had a stiff gin and tonic and then got on with my evening. At no point after the incident did it occur to me to turn my car around, drive the five minutes to Brixton police station and report it.

In Brighton, in the UK, where I’ve been living for the past decade or so, some idiot in an SUV reversed into my parked bicycle and trashed the front wheel. Not only did I report it, I kept the crime number and followed up the case on the assumption that it was my civic duty, and that idiots in SUVs would continue to drive dangerously unless people like me made them stop. In Joburg, though, I had no such impulse, even though I could potentially have saved another solitary woman in a car from a similarly unpleasant experience.

Thinking about it, I realise that there are two reasons behind my inaction. Firstly, there’s the fact that “we all know” the police won’t do anything. Whether due to incompetence or indifference, we, the average citizenry of this city and this country, assume that the police aren’t particularly interested in threats to our person or property and therefore it’s not worth the effort to report most criminal episodes. The second, and more worrying, is that “we all know” that the police are as much, if not more, of a threat as my erstwhile incompetent hijacker.

This is a piece of information that I’ve acquired in the five months since I’ve moved back to South Africa. I’ve picked it up with other arcane bits of Joburg knowledge, largely relating to whether stopping at robots at night is a good or bad idea. Recently a friend warned me – again – about the dangers of driving drunk, and not because I could hurt myself or someone else, but because if you get caught the police might throw you into the back of a van and rape you. This is where white privilege crumbles.

I’m not sure whether this endemic suspicion of the police is always necessary. My own dealings with the SAPS in Norwood, where my parents live, have always been perfectly friendly. However, like everyone else I’ve heard enough stories to know that the police in general can’t trusted. Of the four people I’ve lived with since I’ve been back in South Africa, two have spent a night in jail for spurious reasons probably related to being French, and one of those saw her Zimbabwean boyfriend beaten to a pulp for trying to protect her. It’s not a pretty picture and it’s little wonder that I’ve adopted wholesale the folk wisdom that the police should be avoided at all costs.

The effect that this has had, on me at least, is to minimise my sense of civic responsibility. If there’s no trustworthy authority I can turn to when danger threatens the polis, then I have no choice but to look out solely for myself, to pay for private security, to keep my cars doors locked, to be wary of beggars at robots because they might be violent as well as just poor. Being an old-fashioned socialist at heart, this is not a position I’m comfortable with. I don’t want to be that person. I want safer streets so that all kinds of people can walk on them, not so that I can promenade alone in my middle-class glory.

This has been one of the hardest things about moving back to South Africa after so long. Negotiating a path between the real risk of being in a dangerous city and the inflated fears that plague the people I speak to, finding a way to be comfortable here without being either foolish or paranoid. I don’t have any answers yet. If my would-be hijacker had been a little more efficient I’d know which side of the fence to fall on, but as it stands I still have faith in Joburg. Perhaps next time I’ll make the effort and report the issue, and perhaps the person behind the desk will surprise me. DM

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