In what is now called the Joburg highway assault, the South African public witnessed an extraordinary movie-like scene of police officers who are part of the security team protecting South African Deputy President Paul Mashatile going in heavy-handed on unidentified civilians and stomping on them.
The civilians were basically beaten up in public for all to see, perhaps to send a stern warning that the roads belong to the “blue light brigade”, to show they have absolute priority in traffic to force you out of the way.
The term “blue light brigade” is used for the SAPS VIP Protection Services and could be used to refer to other road users who have exemptions under traffic regulations.
For many observers, these events have come to be the defining symbol of police regression into lawlessness and the propensity of “blue light police” on our roads to bully citizens with impunity.
The scene was extraordinary, given that one of the biggest killers on South African roads is undoubtedly arrogance and/or aggression.
The blue light brigade members’ actions remind one of the five Memphis police officers charged with murder after video footage emerged of them kicking and punching a motorist, Tyre Nichols, for several minutes at a stop sign as he cried out for his mother while restrained.
No human-rights-respecting person can accept the spectacle of civilians coming under attack by police officers appointed to protect and serve the public, no matter the circumstances.
Regulations and responsibilities
Yes, Regulation 308(h) of the National Road Traffic Regulations, 2000, provides that, “No person driving or having a vehicle on a public road shall fail to give an immediate and absolute right of way to a vehicle sounding a device or bell or displaying an identification lamp in terms of section 58(3) or 60 or Regulation 176.”
But these exemptions come with responsibilities. Section 58(3) permits the driver of an emergency vehicle, a traffic officer, and duly authorised drivers, as well as a “person appointed in terms of the South African Police Service Act… who drives a vehicle in the carrying out of his or her duties” to disregard the directions of a road traffic sign displayed in the prescribed manner.
But the driver must drive the vehicle concerned “with due regard to the safety of other traffic”.
Section 60 allows for certain drivers to exceed the speed limit, subject to the safety of other road users and a visible warning. Notable is that Regulation 176 authorises a member of the SAPS (along with a member of a municipal police service, a traffic officer, and a member of the South African National Defence Force performing police functions) to use a lamp emitting a blue light in the exercise of their duties.
Interestingly, even the South African Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the usage of blue lights while “disregarding safety and traffic regulations and basic human rights”.
“Notwithstanding the provision that authorises the usage of blue lights for emergency purposes, the Commission is, however, concerned that certain incidents seem to suggest that the usage of blue lights is sometimes grossly abused. The violation of traffic rules has an impact on the provision of right to life as enshrined in the Constitution. The special concession granted for blue-light usage should not override the minimum safety and traffic rules that apply to all road users,” the commission said in a 2012 media statement.
Legislative amendments of the National Road Traffic Act 93 of 1996 with regard to privileges given to the blue light brigade are long overdue. Take, for instance, section 1(b) of the act, which states: “No person driving or having a vehicle on a public road shall… follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent having regard to the speed of such other vehicle and the traffic on and the condition of the roadway, or more closely than is prescribed in these regulations”.
Unfortunately, members of the VIP Protection Services very seldom observe this provision as they drive fast and close to civilians ahead of their convoy.
You would think that they are driving on the German motorway, the Autobahn, where there is recommended speed limit of 130 km/h that is merely advisory.
A number of amendments to the National Road Traffic Act may include defining the term “emergency” and the framework of operational requirements.
The George Herald noted in 2014, “In 2010 the Western Cape’s provincial traffic legislation banned the use of blue lights for all government vehicles unless there’s a ‘genuine’ emergency, such as the threat of assassination. Should we do the same?”
Some authorities and legal commentators pre-emptively — and quite expectedly so — pointed to the constitutional provision that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty with regard to the law enforcement members involved in the Joburg highway assault.
One needs to highlight the apparent departures by law enforcement from a commitment to promote the rule of law, including respecting the rights and freedoms of citizens. The taint of official brutality meted out on citizens — regardless of race — is something that cannot be wished away and will further erode the trust of the public in the South African law enforcement agencies meant to protect them
There is a need for accountability now. The public or those at the receiving end of the blue light brigade conduct are not without legal recourse. The victims of the Joburg highway assault, for instance, can lay charges of assault, assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and others.
If it is difficult to identify individual alleged perpetrators, the principle of common purpose can be used against the blue light brigade in question, even those that did not alight from the VIP Protection Services car.
On the other hand, the blue light brigade members such as those in this case might argue that they are exempt from such action because they paid due regard to road safety and aver that they fall within the exemptions of this section in that “due regard” was paid to the safety of other road users, or raise other grounds of justification such as acting in an official capacity.
But, there is already a precedent, with the conviction and sentencing to an effective five years in prison for reckless driving of Joseph Semitjie, the driver of the then Gauteng Housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi.
Semitjie jumped a red light and collided with young motorcyclist Thomas Ferreira, causing serious head injuries. The court in the case of Ndlela v S 2013 (unreported, KZP), recognised that reckless driving in the circumstances could not be condoned.
In particular, it found that there was no emergency as the probability that the MEC would be late for an appointment did not qualify as an emergency. Also, the fact that a driver is entitled to use a blue light and siren in itself did not constitute authority to ignore traffic rules or infringe on the rights of other road users.
If the blue light brigade and the VIP Protection Services continue to operate as they are doing, with total disregard for the right of citizens and other road users, who needs the police to protect and serve communities?
There is only one option that will benefit justice, the rule of law and respect of human rights for all: Ban the general use of blue lights by the Presidential Protection Unit and VIP Protection Services until the law is changed to define what entails an emergency for these units.
Let them learn to be on time for meetings and related engagements for once in their lives without having to bully other motorists on our national roads. DM