Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why I’m scared of the police

Audi R8 crash

The Audi R8 that crashed on Oxford Road last week, breaking into three fascinatingly horrible twisted lumps of metal, was always going to be one of those stories that captured the imagination. On talk radio, in the comments on news websites and on Twitter, it dominated conversation. At a client meeting later that day, it was all we could talk about.

The police explanation for what had happened — the cop found dagga, the guy raced off with him somehow trapped in the car before crashing — always did reek like a cowshed on a Hereford stud. Their version isn’t corroborated by witnesses who saw the car that fateful night or CCTV footage. Now drivers of supercars are calling 702 claiming that they get stopped by the cops for joyrides three to four times a month. The family of the driver of the R8 has reportedly hired a PI to get to the bottom of it.

It’s yet another story to bolster my distrust of the police. Yet another reason why, when I’m driving at night and I see those flashing blue lights, a fist of fear tightens around my gut. Yet another trigger for the quickening of the heart when I’m lying in bed and I hear that familiar soft whoop of the siren that signals a motorist to stop.

There was a time when I didn’t feel this way. I would see a car with the SAPS insignia and feel reassured that the good guys were out there holding that thin blue line against the nameless, faceless evil that lurks in the dark. This is how citizens are supposed to feel about the police, who have the power to commit necessary violence on behalf of the state to which we pay our taxes. But that all changed when two sisters were stopped by the police on a road around the corner from where I live, and raped. It happened in December 2011. Conveniently, the case was withdrawn in March 2012 because of lack of evidence.

There’ve been other stories of ordinary motorists in the area where I live being harassed and even assaulted for no other crime than being unfortunate enough to be picked on by the same people who are supposed to protect them. So now every time I see a police vehicle, I wonder whether something like this will happen to me.

Fear and mistrust of the police is nothing new for South Africans who grew up in townships rather than nice suburbs like I did. That mistrust has long since morphed into kangaroo courts and rough DIY justice; in the suburbs, where the police were never seen as political agents, residents now block streets and wall themselves off, preferring to hedge their bets with acronyms like ADT rather than SAPS.

Last year I had lunch in Cape Town with a friend, a reservist who told me that the force used at Marikana was justified. Thirty-four dead miners was the only possible outcome of that encounter, he argued. What else were they supposed to do? It’s easy for the public to criticise the police, he added. Nobody understands what we face. That’s how the police are now: hunkered down in their own world where everyone is against them — the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting as well as the criminals they’re supposed to be protecting us from.

About six months ago I was stopped on the short drive between my friends’ house in Paulshof and the place where I stay in Bryanston. I was still driving the Range Rover then and I wonder whether that’s why they did a U-turn to follow me after passing me in the opposite direction on Witkoppen Road. I hate Witkoppen; that’s where those sisters were attacked.

You know that sinking sensation when you see the blue lights in your rear view mirror, and you’re not sure whether it’s you they’re after. You pray it’s not you, but there’s that soft, single whoop, so you drive as far as you can, to somewhere it’s relatively safe — in this case, the entrance to a boomed off area. I reasoned that it would be harder for them to intimidate me if there was somebody else around. It was a man and a woman — thank heavens for the woman; if it had been two men, I’d have been beside myself with terror — and we had this awkward, stilted conversation that went on for ages: Where had I been? Had I been drinking? Why did I have this nice car?

I swooned with relief when they left.

Generally, my contact with the police is limited to periodic trips to the bureaucratic torpor of the local police station to get an affidavit proving my physical address for yet another proctological exercise in Rica or Fica, and I’m grateful for that.

I know there are good officers, men and women who battle the odds every day to fight the good fight. A friend of mine, a crime reporter based in Durban, tells me vivid stories of what they go through to stop violent psychopaths in their bloody tracks, in often incredibly dangerous conditions. It’s a hard life that requires a certain laissez-faire attitude to the possibility of imminent death.

But that knowledge, of the good guys, is theoretical. It is not felt, and it is the feeling that matters. I work in the world of advertising and social media, so I suppose I could put my marketing hat on and say that the SAPS brand has been irreparably damaged, for me. The trust is gone, and now I look at the police and the criminals and wonder if there is any difference. Apart, that is, from the fact that some of them happen to wear a uniform.

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    • mike venter

      Could not agree more. Thank you for opening the talk on this subject. Talk to any normal person and at some stage they had some dealings with the police or metro that was either a bribe asked for or some bullshit help with Coke and KFC.

      The more educated police officers are good people, well some, the “voetklapper” bakkie driver police are a bunch of scoundrels. They are ones with a low grade 12 and have no sense of right or wrong or what ethics and morals are. it’s them that will do this kind of thing first, intimidate woman, ask for bribes and coke and such.

      They also have a god complex and because power is bestowed on them they use it without discretion.

    • BillyC

      If you see the SAPS/SAPF as a brand, it’s already equivocal whether it’s a service as in its initial ANC mandate, or a militarised force as per Gen. Bheki Cele’s disastrous instruction that police go out and “moer almal” – innocent and crooks alike. Politician VIP protection squad has further added a Mad Max sociopathic element to the brand. Add to this that police equipment, complete with blue light and R5 assault rifles seem absurdly easy to own. (“trainee policeman shoots lover with a R5 rifle”). What sort of psychometric tests do these people undergo?

      The USA movies tend also to have mixed feeling about their men in blue. Hundreds of thousands of black cruisers have been ritually crashed in police car stunts since 1968 movie Bullet. We all know the routine by heart – “hands on the roof of the car, assume the position, and spread ’em”, growls the David Koresh mirrored sunglass psychopath in every Hollywood B grade blockbuster.

      The British TV cop hero is epitomised by the burnt out heavy drinking Range Rover driving persona of Helen Mirren – tough, but massively vulnerable,… and an absolute hoot at the Emmys

    • Chris Potgieter

      This has not been my experience when dealing with our local guys. Then again I am involved in the local movements like the CPF and the neighbourhood watch. What I have found is that an arrogance exists amongst the mega car drivers that make me want to puke.

    • Sue Ettmayr

      I’ve been out of the country and those two sisters are my friend’s cousins. I am furious that justice was not served here. I had an incident at the Lifestyle Centre Nedbank ATM on Saturday….two men….when the tall one told me he was a policeman woman’s intuition kicked in. Those two criminals tried to scam my credit card. Thanks to the staff of Lifestyle Centre, Tzaneen, this did not happen

    • Rob

      I agree Sarah.

      I’ve also been stopped on numerous occasions for nothing more than to obviously ask for a bribe, and when I’ve told them to ticket me, they thell me the spot fine is X and Y and that I must pay it immediately. I refuse, and they let me go because it’s too much trouble for them to write out the fine, and anyway then the money isn’t going to them.

      Another thing: Anyone notice that the police stations now have armed response security companies protecting them? What has our force become when they can’t even protect themselves!! I would LOVE to find the salesman who pulled of that deal!

    • Hayley Weinberg

      Articles like this are so important. They put out there what all of us think, but often cannot articulate, as well as you do. I feel that I can be really honest here, and admit, that I am happier staying at home at night, I just don’t have the guts anymore!!

      Heard to many stories that all sound the same as yours, and the modus is always the same, fancy car, get stopped and then the scary stuff starts.

      I have been stopped twice at night, and have been lucky to get away with just being asked for my license……but that horrendous feeling of trepidation, when that policeman approaches the window, is something I just cannot deal with.

      Thank you for giving this sad reality a platform.

    • John

      There used to be entertainment at night where I lived. The one nightclubs bartender was murdered. It closed. Another pub is behind security gates with video cameras. The city center is now deathly quiet at night. Crime has so pervaded my consciousness that I am scared to move at night, and it is not only me that feels that way. I digress slightly, but the point moves back to night life. I would not want to stopped by cops at night because there are hardly any witnesses. Most people are cowering indoors. Even restaurants are a risk at night. This is not life, this is a siege. Cops are taking bribes which means they are not honest and people of principle. They are thugs wearing uniforms. I do not see any evidence of this being stamped out or proclamations by ministers stamping down and condemning this practice, or reassuring the public. Anway, may you live to see the end of 2013 and still be alive and healthy. God help us.

    • Dave

      You often hear a siren trolling around Witkoppen and Main between midnight and 2pm throughout week.

      Heard various recounts of being pulled over on Witkoppen for dubious reasons. “Looking for drugs.” Etc.
      Perhaps requires investigation.

    • N McMullen

      Have you noticed that the challenges the Police are facing have become a lot tougher?
      Have you counted the number of them killed in the performance of their duties?
      Have you ever thanked God when you saw that blue light and you needed them?
      Let’s get a balanced view, there is always bad with the good. In the company/business in which you work, are all your co-workers honest, reliable people?
      “God complex”? – My challenge is always, ask if you can spend 24 hours in a Police car, then comment.

    • ntozakhona

      Police are a nuisance because I am adult African who does not like the idea of being under the authority of others whereever I walk. I have however come to accept that as a neccessary inconvinience given the fact that there are always elements out there seeking to inflict evil on unsuspecting respectable ordinary folk.

      I had read the article with an expectation of some unlikely relief from my probably unique dilemma. All I read were allegations based on innuendo and conflicting reports. Charges that were withdrawn and kindergarten stories about joy rides. Sounds to me like the middle class ganging up against the working class fellows in uniform. We all have to be stopped, we cannot hide behind expensive cars which might be a profit of criminal activities.

    • Barbra

      I am amazed at everyone’s naivety / ignorance… it is a common modus operandi, and i personlly know people who have been stopped at night when they know they are over the legal alcohol limit, and the cops then accompany them (one in the car, the other following) to the nearest ATM.

    • Robert

      I guess this is all the more reason to know your rights and have access to a lawyer. What really strikes me is the mediocre standard of everything that has become acceptable in South Africa: defence force members who are over-weight and could not fight their way out of a paper bag; police that are corrupt and incompetent; municipal workers who lack technical skills and frankly, seem completely clueless when having to correct technical issues such as sewerage leaks, water supply infrastructure and power problems and; the list is endless. We need to start valuing excellence in all we do. Once good example is the Blue Drop certification for municipalities: they can only qualify by achieving a very higher score for water supply. We need more initiatives like this where institutions and individuals are under pressure to perform and are rewarded when they do.

    • GrahamJ

      Some of us expected this, even predicted it. And it is happening even faster than we thought. The breakdown of civilisation starts with wonderful ‘plans’ and stirring speeches both formulated and made whilst citizens are progressively beaten and raped.

      The bubbling frustration that causes it remains unaddressed by a weak government that is getting weaker by the day. The silent diplomacy for Zimbabwe is now being applied at home.

      (Oh, and BTW, SAPS is an acronym because it makes a pronounceable word; ADT is an abbreviation because it doesn’t).

      Anyway, the problem is very easy to fix. Vote in an effective government next time.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      The blue lights terrify me just as much, but this tragedy and others like it also leaves me wondering just how it must feel to see smug rich assholes racing around in Audi R8’s when you’re a cop earning close to nothing in exchange for protecting the interests of these same smug rich assholes. It’s really no surprise the police force is corrupt and violent as all hell….

      Also, anyone who doesn’t see the problem with driving around in a supercar in South Africa in 2013 – a country where people are protesting against a R69 a day wage [dop not included] for backbreaking work on farms in the Western Cape – needs, at the very least, a seriously hard kick in the pants.

    • Charles

      I was just as terrified of the Police pre ’94 if not more so, even in the burbs of Joburg. Even worse some of my dutiful neighbours’ sons, some of whom I had been at school with, felt compelled to become reservists and took the opportunity on the eve of the 94 elections to get me and a friend on our knees with a shotgun pointed in our face, for the crime of sitting in a park contemplating the unfolding of history, and this is in the venerable suburb of Melrose. Moral of the story , when you are packing a gun and empowered by the state to intervene in people’s lives, the power is too much for most mortals to not abuse. The system is flawed

    • Garg Unzola

      There is nothing whatsoever wrong with driving around in a supercar in and of itself, no matter how poor your fellow man is. I’m surprised that someone as obviously erudite and well-read as you can make such a rudmentary logical error as assuming our economic landscape is a zero-sum game.

      There are obvious reasons why affirmative action and BEE has failed. Not only in South Africa, but world wide, these policies try to cut up a pie and ensure everyone gets a slice. The problem is there is no pie and someone’s gain is not someone else’s loss.

      Also, picking berries is hardly backbreaking work. I’ve done it a few times. It’s one of the odd jobs that put me through varsity so I can afford my supercar. I didn’t steal it from a wage worker, I promise.

    • Christiana

      Table View Police: You are the best! Thank you for being there when and where we need you!!!

    • DeeGee

      But, would any one of us want to do their jobs? Probably only a small percentage…

    • Confussed

      Interesting read. Also brings to mind the vast private security industry in this country, which depends on high crime, or at the very least the fear of it, to operate profitably. Not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that situation either.

    • The Creator

      I don’t quite get it, somehow. Lots of cops are incompetent and corrupt — that isn’t news, nor new. I visit the big city — the crime capital of the country, incidentally — periodically and, strangely, the white people I meet are not terrified to go out. Maybe it’s different in other centres.

      How fast was that car going in a 60kph zone, to break up into bits when it crashed? Did the cop in board force the driver to drive so fast? At gunpoint, maybe? Hard to believe. Never owned an expensive car, of course, but if a cop forced his way into my car and compelled me to drive fast, I’d head straight for a competing cop-shop and let them sort it out — because then at least I’d survive, even if I spent a night in cells.

      And, yes, I get stopped at roadblocks. Never paid a bribe yet. I must mix with the wrong sort of policemen.

    • Paddy
    • Sas

      Hi. I’ve had a dreadful experience that’s destroyed my faith in the men in blue. Today I consider the SAP as the largest single organized crime syndicate the world has ever seen. They are violent, corrupt and above the law. In fact this crime syndicate is so powerful they even have a minister representing them in the South African government.

      I fail to agree with your stance that “there are good officers, men and women who battle the odds every day to fight the good fight.” My reason is the ones claiming to be “good” are guilty by association. Any person with good moral sense would turn their back on such a dreadful organization as the SAP has become, so I don’t buy the “good” cop theory.

      The one good thing that’s happening as we speak is that the rest of the world is being made aware of the SAP and it’s criminals, through word of mouth, social media posts and articles like yours.

      I pray you never have to become a victim of police brutality and malice as I have.

      Thanks nevertheless for a good article.

    • Dave Harris

      Actually contrary to the hysteria created by our media on crime and police brutality that became blatantly obvious during our 2010 Fifa World Cup, most people that I know don’t share your paranoia. Violent crime has actually come down over the years!

      Its interesting that during apartheid, when you on the other hand, “would see a car with the SAPS insignia and feel reassured”, blacks (Africans, Coloureds and Indians) universally feared being stopped by the police for centuries in their own land and suffered FAR worse!!! Even today in the US, UK… minorities communities are still traumatized by racial profiling. So, police are corrupt all over the world, so what else is new?!!!

    • Lisa

      I agree to an extent with James. Police have long been an instrument of corruption in South Africa. Nowdays South Africans expext to drive around in their luxury vehicles amongst the poorest of the poor without any shame. That is foolish.

    • Mykl

      Invest in a dashcam (dashboard camera). Something like a GoPro or Drift.

      Police corruption is apparently a huge problem in Russia too. The citizenry have resorted to installing dashcams to record police corruption. It’s all about evidence.

    • Max

      Two woman are raped by the police. These women are practically next door neighbours of Sarah. Dave Harris tells Sarah she is hysterical and paranoid.


      Misogynist DD the D

    • Sarah Britten

      Dear Dave Harris:

      What part of “Fear and mistrust of the police is nothing new for South Africans who grew up in townships rather than nice suburbs like I did” did you not read?

      Or did you just read the heading, scan through the piece without paying too much attention, and leap gracefully to a conclusion based on that?

      If you’re going to mouth off in the comments facility, at least have the courtesy to actually read what I’ve written first.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I have to wonder why we have a police force anymore. Other than giving a case number, what do we use them for?

      The copshops have ADT – They don’t even trust themselves to protect themselves. I rely on my neighbours and our neighbourhood watch more. As for upholding the law, (this very afternoon in Centurion) a cop car stopped at a robot next to some stupid woman, who’s kid was standing on her lap whilst she was driving, and what did the lady cop in the passenger side of the cop car do? She waved at the kid!

      For the good cops out there – I don’t know how you do it. To keep moral in the middle of this all ….. well you are heroes that rival Superman.

    • http://iafrica marty

      trusting the police is like trusting the anc – you are going to get shafted!

    • stewart

      Just as I was starting to miss South Africa I read your excellent article and was reminded in chilling detail why I left permanently in 1993.
      There’s only one solution for intelligent people with an education – LEAVE – QUICKLY!

    • Hmmmmm…..

      @ Dave
      Agree that blacks were terrified of the police in the forma era – with very good reason. Whites were scared too, but for different reasons. Were effectively a police state.We were stopped once (a dim headlight) and the the guy did everything in his power to provoke my husband. We had coincidentally just purchesd the replacement bulb which we duly showed him. He then saw fit to give us a “Slim mannetjie ne ?- “jy is te groot vir jou skoene mannetjie – ek gaan jou kry – ek het jou nommer” lecture. HIs harassment took about 20 mins. We sat through that lecture, “Ja and amening” with the jerk who was clearly enjoying his power. Discretion was better than valour. In terms of ill treatment and abuse of power, South Africa’s police force has a long and brutal history of the abuse of its powers, which continues today , manifested in a variety of ways. What has changed is the lack of professionalism and efficiency and the overt corruption. The Apartheid police were focused and highly efficient – which is why we had a police state and why we were all so scared. The same cannot said about SAPS today. Now its all about “me” and “money”. However it is very unfair to tar everyone with the same brush. There have always been, and there continues to be many caring, professional and dedicated police men and women out there and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their rather thankless task.

    • Garg Unzola

      Most people I do know share a fear for the police. This is based on living in inner-city slums and the horrific experiences with police officers who frequently stopped cars for no reason other than to try and elicit bribes.

      I would rather not stop for a police officer late at night and go and explain myself to a judge at a later stage. I’ve got no faith in the police whatsoever.

    • BillyC

      Dave Harris should take note that the KZN RTI recently held a torture fitness test 4 km run for 35000 applicants at PMBurgs Harry Gwala stadium for 9 advertised jobs as provincial traffic cops in blazing heat and humidity. 8 applicants died needlessly of heat stroke as a direct result of the RTI’s total incompetence and stupidity.

      In PMburg we have no problems with metrol traffic police because all 154 of them are on a permanent sit in strike due to issues from poor pay to redundant vehicles. The only time we see them out in mass is when JZ sweeps into town to visit one of his lady friends.

    • Garg Unzola

      As a curiosity, did you notice a distinct increase in road accidents or in any kind of mayhem on the roads as a result of not having a functional metro police force?

    • http://iafrica marty

      this article should be entitled – Why I’m scared of criminals!

    • Percipient

      I’ll tell you what Sarah here’s a brilliant idea, take a ride into Hillbrow late one Friday night and see if you can pick up a bodyguard off Goldreich Street (just there by the parking lot opposite Braemar Court) I believe the Congolese chaps are available at quite good rates. Come on, you gotta trust ol’ Percipient.

    • Sciber

      South Africa’s trigeer happy police seem more like a government tool to instill into the citizens mind that should they try to do that ‘Arab-spring’ thing’ a Marikana like happening would be inevitable’ but this time on a national/larger scale.
      Nearly all South Africans across all demographics are terrified of Police, both consciously & subconsciously.

    • Duncan

      The Police Force cannot afford one single member to be less than a scrupulously honest, ethical and diligent public servant, because one bad apple spoils the whole damn barrel.

    • Bruce

      There are some good cops but feel distinctly uneasy when on the road and see any police vehicle. Power has corrupted and many of our police are merely thugs. The consequences when these bad guys are caught never seem to be published, but suspension seems to be the name of the game until the heat has gone. Where to from here?

    • Dave Harris

      Dear Sarah, there you go, trivializing the black experience yet again. You see it is not just a case.of it being “nothing new” for blacks but in fact in many cases turned out to be a TRAUMATIC ORDEAL at the mercy of openly racist thugs supported by the state to ENFORCE apartheid by whatever means necessary! At least today we ALL have basic human rights and even the technology to protect ourselves against most types of police corruption.

      I understand and sympathize with your fears which have more to do with YOU than our police!

    • ntozakhona

      Seems to me the article was written in support of the views of the proffessional cynics and proffessors of doom.

    • Reducto

      @Harris: “Even today in the US, UK… minorities communities are still traumatized by racial profiling.”

      I suggest taking sometime to speak to Chinese South Africans in Gauteng about the way they are racially profiled and targeted while driving by police, who hope they are illegal immigrants so they can get a quick bribe. I was shocked to learn the extent of harassment they face from police when merely minding their own business.

    • Frank McAteer

      Reading the responses to this article makes me wince. When I lived in that beautiful country between 1986 and 1990 you would never have dreamed of the police asking for a bribe. Whats Changed ?????????????????????

    • Garg Unzola

      @Dave Harris:
      There you go trivialising the TRAUMATIC ORDEAL of rape victims.

    • Liz

      My daughter has had the same thing and she is terrified to drive at night and will only go if there are a few of them in the car, we were contacted by a journalist who had many cases of abuse, and rape and they wanted it to go before the Human Rights commission, but many of the girls are too scared as the police know where you live and we have even had them come past at night and turn on their siren just once or twice, just so you know they are out there. A pretty young girl in a nice car in the northern suburbs draws the police like a magnet. If you are on pig spotter you will know the times when girls have been stopped and the guys going past notice something odd, put out a message to all come and help, it is amazing how quickly the police pack up and leave. Sadly some girls are not so lucky. May I just point out it is not just a race thing, it happens to all girls and especially the pretty ones. Bribes
      happen everyday all over the country, it has become a fact of life. I do not know anyone who has not been stopped and asked for ”lunch money” or more. It is also a fact that when the young adults go out to clubs on the weekend, they will be stopped and asked for a couple of hundred rand

    • Bruce Pidwell

      My son. has produced an App, that will record evidence, in picture and sound, on a cell phone, it sends an E Mail every 30 seconds, to, two recipients of your choice, it also gives the co ords of where the message is sent from. therefore evidence cannot be lost or misplaced, If the phone is confiscated, the information has already been sent. The App’s name is ‘Bamba’ and can be retrieved from the App Store for free. Unfortunately it will only work on Android phones, at this stage.This should be a standard tool for reporters or anybody who records incidents, or for personal security.