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 Conveniently, the case was withdrawn in March 2012 because of lack of evidence.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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