Recent run-ins with the men and women in blue makes me sympathetic to those who defiantly proclaim “fuck the police”.
On the eve of Human Rights Day the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars in Gauteng was given an insider’s perspective of the “beacon of light” in a history of oppression and disregard for basic human rights of dignity, privacy, equality and freedom of movement and expression. The tour, conducted by a fellow Mandela Rhodes Scholar and current Constitutional Court clerk Chris McConnachie, highlighted the stark contrast between the inhuman and abhorrent Apartheid era police and judicial system, on Constitutional Hill, chillingly juxtaposed against a new, open, transparent and democratic post-apartheid order.
The central theme throughout the old fort and new court — power with the people, and not the decades of pervasive and unjustified power over the people — is promisingly reflected as one strolls through the various sections of the area. Justice under the trees and open, transparent and equal access to the law strikingly captured in the main chamber devoid of barriers between the public and the judges, the former symbolically seated higher than the judges signifying the ideal of law originating with the people.
Starry-eyed, idealistic and in awe of the principles of the New South Africa, my partner and I departed from Rosebank after 11pm, embarking on our long trek on the N1 towards Tshwane. Working in Midrand, the workings of the N1 is nothing new. I did, however, find the stationary traffic between Marlboro and Woodmead drive just into Sunday morning rather perplexing. Assuming there was an accident, I thought nothing of it.
Twenty minutes the roadblock came into view and having nothing to hide (or, as we thought, to fear) we proceeded through it. Steven, ethical scholar that he is, declared that he had a few drinks during the course of the evening and, initially hesitating, the officer asked that we pull over.
I’ve never had a problem with these roadblocks and deem them necessary in a country where drunk driving and fatal road accidents are appallingly common. There was also, from my point of view, no reason for non-compliance and being law abiding citizens we did just that.
The officer proceeded to explain the blood-alcohol content limit (0.04%) and that, if Steven as the driver exceeded the limit he would be arrested and only granted bail on Wednesday (four days later and in clear contravention of Article 35 1(d) of the Constitution).
A few minutes into the fiasco it became evident that the metro police officer was out to prove a point: he’s carrying the badge, he has the power, and he is in charge. I raised my eyebrows, but assumed the man knew what he was doing.
The Dräger breathalyser was administered and the man proclaimed jubilant — almost ecstatically — that Steven’s blood alcohol tested 0,010% and the fact that this was over the 0,04 limit was incontestable. An involuntary fit of laughter would, under normal circumstances, be induced at the hilarity of the contention had it not been tragic and the situation not as severe.
Having been exposed to the intricate workings of decimal numbers in Grade 3, a polite and calm discussion with the presiding officer ensued. Ten, he claimed, was a greater number than four and he remained defiant, even drawing the decimal numbers 0,000, 0,010, 0,02, 0,03 and 0,04 on his hand as further incontestable proof.
Steven assumed that reason would win the man over and attempted to expose the man to a brief revision of the Grade 3 curriculum. The argument was going nowhere, both parties were getting visibly irritated and I requested a second opinion.
A female officer approached, the original officer then insisted that Steven tested 0.10, and the female officer administered the test again obtaining the exact 0.010 reading. The two, dazed and confused, attempted to work out whether this was indeed over the limit. Failing to come to a conclusion the original officer insisted that there would have been no issue had Steven merely apologised (for what I don’t know) and that I would be arrested for interruption. He failed to state whether this was for interruption of the peace or interruption of incompetence, and I wasn’t about to ask him to clarify.
In the end, whether due to the triumph of reason and rationality or the mind-numbing result of confusion, we were told to go — however, not before the female officer questioned us on our reasons for being in Johannesburg and why we were so far away from home – at least escaping arrest and detention for an unconstitutional 72 hours our only crime: being ethical law abiding citizens exercising their basic human rights.
In a liberal and constitutional democratic order in which the state and by implication police service possess a legitimate monopoly over the use of violence, incidents like these raise serious questions over the new found “intimidation before education” mantra of the men and women in blue. Our human rights day kicked off with a clear demonstration of why the Constitution and its limits on the use of state power is necessary and, sadly, far from the prevailing norm. Tragically this is not our first encounter with such thuggish brutish tactics.
Having previously questioned the desire to make the police a force to be reckoned with and feared — “goodbye liberty, hello police state” — I think I’ve changed my mind. I’m all for the militarisation of the police if it adequately reflects the quality and capacity of those tasked with serving and protecting the citizens of the Republic: brutish general incompetence and major mistake with a false superiority complex emanating from a badge and uniform.
In honour of our new police force fokofpolisiekar shall be the honourary band of choice this week. Long live Human Rights and the spirit and sacrifices of those gunned down at Sharpeville.