News / Opinion

Austil Mathebula
5 minute read
13 Feb 2017
11:52 am

Can someone tell Gauteng’s men in blue I’m not a criminal?

Austil Mathebula

Even though I'm black, eh.

Senior content producer Austil Mathebula

There I was, with more than a dozen perfectly innocent taxi commuters spending about three hours in police detention on Sunday afternoon for utterly nameless and unnamed crimes.

I had made my way from Mpumalanga to Johannesburg, travelling trouble free in a long-distance taxi until I reached the City of Gold. After being dropped at the Bree taxi rank, I boarded another one to Dobsonville. As we were passing Langlaagte on Main Reef Road, a police van stopped us and ordered all of us to get out.

One SA Police Service (SAPS) officer got into the taxi and searched it for about 20 minutes. This guy was doing a great job, I thought.

I didn’t mind. Phela, you never know; there may be drugs or guns in there, I told myself.

Then, after that intense and frantic search, he turned to all the male taxi passengers and commanded we raise our hands and face the opposite direction. He pinned us all to a fence just next to the road. He searched us as thoroughly as he had the taxi.

This man must have gotten a tip-off about a serial killer travelling with us, I kept thinking. Even at this point, I didn’t mind. I had nothing to hide.

After about another an hour of waiting, there was finally a fruitless search of my bag. There was a light rain, and we waited there like convicted criminals while he searched our bags. He found nothing. The driver also had all the legally required driving documents.

By now, I was no longer feeling quite so patient with any of this.

I asked the policeman why we were being searched. His response was: “Talk to me in Zulu”, and then he added: “Go ask Zuma.”

Hawu madoda. Ask Zuma? Kanjani? What have I got to do with Zuma? And since when is isiZulu the only language that can be spoken to a cop in South Africa?

I asked him this, to which I got only a very unimpressed look.

After searching us, he turned to the ladies. There were no female officers who could harass the women as the men had done. But still, the men took hold of each of the ladies’ bags and searched them, though one of the women refused to allow her bag to be searched by a male officer.

The officer then decided to drive all of us to the Langlaagte Police Station so that the “difficult” woman and her bag could be searched by a female officer. Ten minutes later, we were at the station and the woman’s little bag was searched. Still, there was nothing.

Okay, now it’s finally time to go home, I thought.

But then the officer refused to give the driver his keys.

Why?

“He’s disrespectful,” the officer declared.

We had to spend another 30 minutes at the station begging that the officer give the driver the keys so we could all finally go home.

Never had I felt quite so dehumanised.

For God’s sake, what had I done to deserve this treatment? What had any of us done? I’m a good citizen who pays his taxes; I believe in law and order. I don’t snatch people’s iPhones for a living. I work for what I have and I’ve never committed a crime.

Yes, South Africa is a crime-infested country. According to statistics reported by the SAPS, 2.1 million crimes were reported in the 12 months between 2015 and 2016. That’s something no one can make light of.

In Joburg central, you have to be careful where you walk and how you display your gadgets – WhatsApp chatting while walking in Mjondolo, as some refer to Joburg, is not a good idea. You never know who’ll come and snatch your phone in the blink of an eye.

These crimes can, and do, affect everyone – it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. And crime is committed by people of all races. You can be sure to find prisoners of all races in the country convicted of crimes covering the gamut from murder to drug dealing, rape and fraud.

It’s the duty of the SAPS and other law enforcement bodies to ensure we get rid of this cancer – so that both S’busiso and Henry can feel safe.

But in ensuring South Africa remains a crime-free environment, the police also have a duty to respect the rights of those they suspect.

They have a duty to simply respect human beings, period.

The kind of blunt stupidity displayed yesterday afternoon was doing the very opposite of fighting crime. It’s the kind of thing that makes decent, law-abiding people despise the police. And the more that happens, the more the very same people – the community of everyday people the police rely on to fight and solve crimes – become increasingly unwilling to work with the cops.

Yes, I have sympathy for the fact that they put their lives on the line every day. Yes, I know they’re badly paid. But none of that is an excuse, and it just makes everything worse for everyone except the bad guys. In the kind of scenario that played out yesterday, the only winners are the criminals.

I still can’t figure out what yesterday’s little exercise was meant to achieve. And I can only wonder how many such little crimes against human dignity and the constitution are perpetrated by our cops every day.

As much as we all hate crime and are affected by it, each of us also has a right to human dignity, even if it seems there’s an unwritten assumption that a black person travelling in a taxi must be guilty of something until proven innocent.

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