OPINION: How the police stole my integrity
On Thursday 12 February 2015, just after 09:30 in the morning, I was pulled out of a taxi in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Before I was taken from the taxi, I was greeted in Setswana and then again in isiZulu. Each time, my inflection and tone did not quite satisfy the police officer. She then demanded my passport, and to save her the trouble I offered my ID. She barely looked at it before she declared that I must get out the taxi and I was being arrested for fraud, for holding a South African passport when I am not South African.
I was two blocks from my parents' first house in Alexandra, in First Avenue. Just around the corner from the crèche I attended before we left Alex. I was not very far from the home my parents bought in Lombardy East in 1992. And yes, I am soft spoken and still have an American lilt in my speech, no matter what language I speak. So I was not even worried, it's a common mistake people make about me. I expected a quick word outside the taxi, a thorough inspection of my ID and then I would be back on board headed home. I even left my bag on the taxi... but the police officer demanded the other commuters pass over my bag and they detained me.
As the taxi left, she explained that I was to wait against the wall until the transport arrived. I would be taken to Lindela where they would 'biologically' verify that I was not South African. A bit astonished, I explained that I am indeed South African. I was born in Tembisa and my childhood circumstances meant I never quite mastered the majority of South African languages. She said I was speaking nonsense, pocketed by ID and shoved me aside. I went and stood by the wall and wondered if this was real and what exactly I should do.
Perhaps it would be useful to explain my childhood circumstances at this juncture. As a young child I was fully multilingual and spoke a broad range of South African languages, including Sesotho, isiZulu, Xhosa, Xitsonga and English. I was about seven-years-old when we accompanied my father to the United States. He went to study a postgraduate degree on scholarship. I had no choice in this. When it was time to return to South Africa, the apartheid government refused us entry. I had no choice in this. I grew up in the United States with a single father, who tried hard and worked hard. He taught us that we were there to fight for our people and our country's freedom. I spent weekends at anti-apartheid rallies in Washington and New York, face-to-face with the ugly hatred of the Klu Klux Klan. I went to school and lived with American children who called us names, bullied us and treated us like dirt because of our proudly South African heritage. My father taught me not to be fazed and I embraced my otherness - I was never American. But dad was busy and our exposure to other South Africans was limited, and slowly over the years the language faded.
When I came back home, to South Africa, I was surprised and hurt by the amount of rejection I faced. I was different and I was punished by my people for this. I was either rejected because of language or put on some pedestal. But either way I was 'othered' by my own people, in my own home. People treated me like a fake, insisted I was pretending to be something I was not. Other children, especially black children, insulted me and called me names for looking different, speaking differently and being different. I could never understand, my mother could not stand the tears and at some point I even changed schools for a brief period after being diagnosed with depression.
For me, this was not 'otherness', it was disowning me, it was disenfranchising me, it was dehumanising me. Where did I belong if not here? Who was I, if not the South African identity I had clung to and cherished and fought for? My reaction was to reject the language, the very tool that was being used to set me aside. I embraced English and stuck to friends with similar experiences and similar lives. So the accent stuck and my knowledge of South African languages was neglected.
I was well into my 20s before I began to find myself and started learning Xhosa, and in my 30s when I started learning Sesotho and isiZulu. This is why I stuttered and fumbled as my South Africanness was tested through language in the hot morning sun that Thursday. I tell this not to explain or even give credentials, but because all of this is who I am. Because there was no part of me willing to even entertain the idea that I am not South African and this infuriated the police officer. Throughout my hour-plus ordeal, I watched foreign nationals apologise for not having papers and have fervent conversations in an unmarked taxi and then leave. I soon realised I was the only person being detained and I knew I was in trouble. I was never going to say I am not South African. And I was never going to pay a bribe.
But I was still blank on what to do and where to start. I let them know at home that there was trouble, but said, "Relax. I'll try sort it out." I posted to Facebook in the hope that some of my attorney friends would advise me on what to do, and at least everyone would know what had happened. I then called the nearest lawyer I knew and explained the situation. He asked to speak to the police officer, but when I went to call her, she yelled at me and told me to stand where she had placed me. I sent a message: My battery is dying and I just don't know what to do, she will not listen.
The police officer eventually returned to tell me that I would be transported to Bramley police station and booked there. She taunted me, "Who were you phoning? Can they help you?" I explained that he was my father's friend, a family friend and a lawyer and he wanted to verify my citizenship. She agreed to talk to him and I called him back. As he tried to speak to her, she insulted him and insisted that no South African could be so incompetent at South African languages. She threatened that should he arrive, he would be arrested for aiding my fraud. Then she walked away as the man was still speaking.
As messages and questions came pouring in, my battery continued to die. The next plan was to put me in touch with a lawyer who specialised in such matters. She advised me to find out names, identify police vehicles and learn which station the officers came from. I started writing down my location. I started looking around for police vehicles and noticed that there were none, not one. I started asking officers for their stations and names and got no answer. Then I took out my phone to take a picture of the scene, especially where I noticed that money was exchanging hands. But my battery died.
However, the very act caught attention. As more officers focused on what I was doing, I decided to pretend to take more photos. The arresting police officer returned very quickly at that point. She wanted to know what I was doing. I explained that I was documenting the situation. She demanded that I delete the photos I had taken. I said I would do no such thing. She started shouting, "You are going to regret what you are doing! Delete those photos! Give me that phone!" Then she punched me in the head. I didn't flinch or wince. I calmly put my phone in my bag and turned to face her. I told her that she best not strike me again, because it would only make matters worse for her going forward. I warned her that assaulting a pregnant woman, after detaining her for no reason, was going to look very bad for her.
I explained that I had every intention to complain. Initially she laughed and said, "Complain? Complain to who? Me?". I smiled as I said, "I will complain to your station commander and then the provincial commissioner and then the national commissioner and then the minister." I looked into her eyes as I explained that I am indeed South African and I am not one of the victims she has been harassing and robbing all morning. This time she heard me. She took out my ID and handed it over. She initially tried to convince me that she did not strike me and did not detain me. I told her that she had and I wanted a badge number, name and station. She apologised and asked me to leave. I told her I would go nowhere without a name, badge number and station. She wrote down a fake name and the incorrect station.
I took some time to finish documenting the scene and started the long walk to get a taxi home. I knew they would be worried at home because no one could communicate with me. I walked off, my head pounding and adrenalin rushing.
You see, I had some time to think while I was standing there. I thought about all the 'exile children' who never talk about the ordeal of returning to South Africa and feeling displaced. I thought about my own children who do not speak South African languages fluently. I thought about the women I saw being pulled off the taxis. Yes, it was only women being pulled that day, and the bribes they were being forced to pay. And I knew that I could not let it rest. I realised that I am not powerless or voiceless. I have the voice to express this injustice, this humiliation, this indignation. And I intend to do so.
This ordeal is about so much more than a police officer who detained and assaulted me. I would have never encountered it had I not been on a taxi. Those police officers were given permission to set up that roadblock (this was confirmed later) although there was no official police signage. Their tactics are widely used and accepted by authorities. How do you authorise a roadblock to check citizenship and not have Home Affairs officials present? How do you authorise a roadblock to check citizenship yet have no mechanisms to verify IDs and passports? How do you authorise such a roadblock and then accept that your officers return with no arrests?
There is more. If you are checking citizenship then surely everyone should present their document? The language check prior to demanding a document is called profiling. It is the rough tool that attackers used to identify foreigners during the 2008 xenophobic attacks. They would ask you "what is this in isiZulu" while pointing to the elbow, and you were deemed a foreigner if you did not know or could not pronounce it properly. I still don't know, by the way. That defiant streak in me refuses to know. It is the same as focusing on black males when a crime has been committed in an area: we call that racial profiling. How different is it from the pencil test of the apartheid state?
That simply cannot be the accepted protocol and approach for identifying nationality used by the police service. To make matters worse, many non-nationals are naturalised citizens in South Africa. Are they to be harassed and mistreated because they fail the language test? Then really, what does our citizenship stand for? And that is before I start to look at the issue of bribes and ripping off the poor and vulnerable.
I got home to find that indeed this is my story to tell and fight to fight. I had barely sat down when my mother arrived. She was so angry. She was livid. She wanted to confront this police officer and ask her where she was when my mother gave birth to me? And indeed, mom forced me back into the car and drove like an F1 driver back to the roadblock. She wanted me to identify the officer who had struck me. We found that the officers had left. I got home to the news that the provincial and national commissioner had already been informed and instruction had been issued that I must be found. This did not make me feel better. Why should people jump for me because I am SOMEBODY's daughter? Everyone who goes through this ordeal every day is somebody's child.
We were requested to present at the Bramley police station, where the station commander himself received us. He indicated that he had been running up and down looking for me and making calls trying to locate me because the national commissioner's office had called. He was relieved to locate me and that I was alright. We learned a few things on this latter journey.
First, the officer had indeed given a false name and the incorrect station. The roadblock had been approved and the officers were reservists from Alexandra police station. As a matter of form, the SAPS do not arrest people for such matters, at best they detain you until they verify your identity. Secondly, for such a roadblock or search focusing on nationality or residency police officers must be accompanied by a Home Affairs officer. Thirdly, Bramley police station does not have holding facilities for women, so it is unlikely that there was a real intention to arrest me. I can only assume the intention was to harass me and solicit a bribe.
The station commander requested that I open a case and informed me that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate would also be requested to investigate. I must go and submit a statement. I will have to do an identity parade to identify the officer who detained and assaulted me. I will do all this and follow due process. But surely it cannot end there? This is not one rotten apple. There were at least 20 police officers at that roadblock and they were all doing the same thing. And I am told the station commander at Alexandra regularly authorises such roadblocks. This police officer will likely lose her job and face other sanctions. I feel sorry for her. But the real issue is that such roadblocks which use discriminatory profiling must stop all together. And the people responsible for that are the national commissioner and the minister.
I must say a word about the emotions that flooded me when I got home. I was exhausted, but could not rest. I knew that I should be hungry, but I could not eat. Anxiously, I waited to feel the baby moving. I had a faint distant feeling that I was not safe. This is the violation that I have faced. My personal integrity has been violated so much, I no longer feel as safe and secure as before. I only relaxed when my children were all back home in the house. And yet I am awake writing this now. It's nearly 3 in the morning and I cannot sleep. Something was stolen from me. This is not the South Africa I marched for. This is not the South Africa I dreamed of as a young naive graduate who decided to become an activist and help build our democracy. And the only way to get it back is to fight for THIS never to happen again.