Bad SAPS eggs create sickly stench
South Africa is making headlines again for all the wrong reasons, thanks to the South African Police Service. It must be so heartbreaking for the hard-working, honest and decent men and women in blue who wake up every morning to keep our streets safe. Those who risk their lives as they tackle the underworld of crime must be frustrated about their colleagues who think that the blue uniform and the guns on their waist make them gods and arbiters of who may live or die.
The world is talking about the brutality of police officers from Daveyton, on the East Rand, who beat a man to a pulp, tied him to the back of a van and dragged him through the streets. Joseph Mido Macia's only crime was that he had parked on the wrong side of the road and dared to argue with the gods. He should not have, of course, but neither should he have died at the hands of officers who should protect lives. As if this was not enough, it seems he was assaulted further in the police cells and died. Not satisfied with taking a life, the police had the gall to cover up and declare themselves innocent. The information they forwarded to investigators exonerated them, but thanks to footage from a brave witness we now know that Macia did not die at the hands of other inmates. His murderers were police officers.
I can imagine how they salivated when they realised their victim was a Mozambican. Stories abound of how some police specifically target foreigners. They bully them and extort money from them, exploiting their vulnerability. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a group of female sex workers who walk the streets in the dark, eking out a living. In my ignorance, I could not understand how the desperation to make money surpassed all concerns for safety. A half-naked woman, standing on a corner in the streets of Johannesburg is fair game for all sorts of perverts and criminals. They laughed and said: "The only criminals are the police.
They rape us and take our money."
Yes, it made sense. As a woman driving alone at night it is not the other drivers who make me nervous, but the sight of an SAPS van. Instead of relief and reassurance I feel fear and anxiety, because too many South Africans are victimised and threatened with arrest for no reason. I remain haunted by that woman whose name we will never know, who was arrested for public disturbance about four years ago and thrown into a cell with males who took turns to rape her. Men are also thrown into cells with dangerous inmates just to "teach them a lesson".
A police acquaintance once advised me that it is not a good idea to argue with the police. They are dictators who tolerate no dissent. A simple attempt to explain your position is seen as provocation. When stopped we must grovel and beg for our lives, even when we have not done anything wrong.
We have been here before. Our history is littered with the blood of innocent citizens who were killed and maimed by police. In the dark days of apartheid, they patrolled our streets, broke down the doors to our homes and kicked and shoved men and women who were desperately trying to hold on to their meagre belongings. The cries of children as they watched their parents being assaulted did not deter them. Sometimes, these scenes played out in the streets in broad daylight. Remember Sharpeville? Again, the police got away with it because the state machinery was designed to protect them.
It is 2013 and we are still afraid. Not all officers behave in this way, but enough of them do and the minister and police commissioner cannot afford to pontificate and pull a PR stunt. Suspending and arresting the officers was a step in the right direction. Nathi Mthethwa and Riah Phiyega's allegiance is not to the police, but to the public.
This column appeared in The Sunday Times.