Jovial Rantao knows what the minister of police’s first task should be.
The gentlemen tucking into their sizeable lunch on a makeshift table next to the door looked like they didn’t want to be disturbed. But, desperate for help, we took our chances and slowly approached. Respectable greetings were offered. A warm response came forth.
We need help, we announced to the officer in an office at the Van Rijn Deep Vehicle Theft Unit in Benoni.
We were in Benoni – the birth town of Hollywood star Charlize Theron – on a serious restitution mission. We were there to collect a car that was stolen when the alternative economic freedom fighters – aka criminals – decided to nationalise my belongings on one blooming afternoon last month.
“We can’t help you,” replied one of the gentlemen in a faded blue uniform. “We have no electricity. We haven’t had power since yesterday (Thursday, May 22). Please come back on Monday but call first, to make sure power has been restored.”
Our heads and shoulders dropped in disappointment. As we turned around, our eyes caught a hand-written note on two toilet doors. “No water”, read the notice.
“It’s been five months,” came a voice from the makeshift lunch table, that was, ironically, at least two metres from the waterless bathroom.
What? five months? Came my spontaneous retort? I didn’t verbalise them but many questions crossed my mind. So what do these officers – male and female – do when nature calls? How can human beings, employed by the government to serve the public, work under such conditions?
We asked which documents we must bring on Monday, after calling to first make sure there is electricity, so we can reclaim my car. “Check the board! The full list is there,” came the don’t-disturb-us answer. We left.
On Monday, May 26, after trying the telephone number supplied three days ago for two hours with no success, we arrived back in Benoni.
As we walked in, the police officers looked at us and said that there was no still no electricity. We told them about our two-hour ordeal to phone first. Then we made a horrific discovery: the phone lines have been out of order for the past year. No, this is not a printing error. The phones have not rang at the Van Rijn Deep Police Station for the past year! Twelve months! A whopping 365 days!
But there was hope. A dose of humanity. One of the officers looked at the despair in our eyes and announced that he was going to help us. “You will get your vehicle today,” he said. The only snag, he added, was that we would have to do everything manually.
We didn’t mind. As long as we got service, even if it was as if we were back in 1910.
As the officer got his pen and many papers and we started to manually fill them out, he poured out his frustrations. Their working conditions, he said, were beyond atrocious. Then he started to provide important context to some of the behaviour we witnessed.
The stress, he said, was too much. This is why some times officers were not as friendly and helpful. In my mind, he was trying to explain our unwelcoming on Friday, May 23.
“It’s not that we are bad people,” he intoned. “But some times the stress gets to us and we do and say wrong things without realising it.”
All forms filled in triplicate, spare key in hand, we took a walk to reclaim our car. About 10 steps into our walk, his cellphone rang.
He answered. It was his parents. He went to see them over the weekend and they were checking on him. He spoke about them and as he did, so the qualities of human being just oozed out of him. Good guy, we thought.
Wonder how great he would be under humane working conditions.
As I reclaimed what is rightfully my property I could but conclude that if there is anything that the new minister of police can do, it is to ensure that no police officer ever has to work under the conditions faced by officers at the Van Rijn Deep Vehicle Theft Unit. Everything else doesn’t matter.
Those in the service of the public must be treated in the same way they are expected to treat the public – with respect.
So there’s your first task Honourable Minister of Police Nkosinathi Nhleko.
* Jovial Rantao is the editor of the Sunday Independent