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There may be no political will from the top to change the tide of police corruption, but we can try, writes Hamilton Wende.
Johannesburg - The most balanced journalism is reflective of human experience. There is a time for extroverts to call out loudly and draw attention to what is happening, and there are a number of times when understanding is an introverted process, made up of dozens of small, even unremarkable incidents and conversations that, in the end, give your readers a better sense of the society you are writing about than the loud, strident headlines.
Recently I was party to an accumulation of such small encounters that together are deeply disturbing, especially when you put them alongside the headlines.
The first was something I and my colleagues could see coming a mile off – well, half a mile off anyway. The police roadblock was in front of us, and we were travelling in a minibus that looked like a taxi.
Once we reached the roadblock, the officer put his hand up and motioned that we were to pull over. The driver rolled down his window and the policeman put out his hand. “Faka, faka”, he said. “Put it, put it,” meaning he should put the money in his hand. Then he looked into the back of the minivan and saw a group of middle-class journalists. He laughed in a half-embarrassed, half-uncaring way and waved the driver on.
“This happens to us nearly every day,” the driver told me later. “There’s not a police officer who doesn’t expect us to pay them a bribe, even when we are not doing something wrong.”
Sadly, this is no longer an unusual anecdote nowadays. And, like so much in our country, there is both a race and a class element to the way it ended. We journalists in the back were mostly white and clearly socially powerful enough to potentially make trouble for the officer, so he backed down. Had the driver – a young black man – been on his own, he would certainly not have risked a confrontation with a police officer, but would have paid the bribe and hoped for the best.
I posted about this incident on Facebook and received an interestingly divided reception from my Facebook friends. South Africans, by and large, expressed resignation and even wary anger. A number of my overseas friends said something along the lines of: “It’s not good that a cop should ask for a bribe, but many South Africans are prepared to pay a bribe rather than the penalty.”
True enough, but a more disturbing truth is that there was no infringement of any traffic regulation. We were stopped simply because the officer assumed we were a taxi and that he could then extract a small bribe from the driver – as he would continue to do throughout the day from other taxi drivers.
It is too easy to say that in these cases, the driver should refuse to pay. There are too many instances of police brutality, both reported and unreported, for anyone to take the risk of being arrested and imprisoned lightly, even on false pretences. It is safer to pay a bribe and be allowed to go on one’s way.
Marikana, Mido Macia, 1 500 police exposed as convicted criminals. The headlines are bad enough, but they are not anomalies, they reflect a frightening daily reality for citizens. There is something menacing about living in and going about one’s business in such a society. A little while back, the daughter of a friend of mine and her friends were stopped at a roadblock at night while she was driving and a Breathalyser test found her blood alcohol over the limit. She did what many people do today. She drove with the police to an ATM, withdrew a couple of thousand rand and paid the police to let her go.
“This isn’t the kind of thing we struggled for,” my friend told me. But what could I tell my daughter when she asked. ‘Would you rather have had me go to jail?’”
What can any of us tell our daughters today if they find themselves in the same situation? We cannot trust the police, the prisons and the legal system to treat them fairly and without abuse. We cannot, in conscience, ask them to allow the law to take its course. The risks of violence and rape are too high. So what do we do? We pay the money and hope for the best.
I had another quiet encounter a few days after the taxi incident. I was at a social event where there was a senior police officer whom I have known for a number of years and whom I respect enormously. He could make much more money in the private sector but he chooses to stay in the police out of genuine dedication and strong patriotic commitment to making South Africa a better place.
I was talking to him about the police and what is happening in its ranks, and his assessment was troubling, to say the least.
“We are reaching a point now, in terms of incompetence and corruption, where if something is not done to change that, we will soon never be able to change it.”
There are, of course, many good police officers like him, struggling to do their best in a society that is fundamentally violent and filled with the rage of poverty and inequality. But we all know – from the growing accumulation of our small, barely noticeable experiences – that the bitter truth of our country is that the tide is turning against such officers.
It was the American philosopher Henry Thoreau who said: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” This is what is happening to many people in South Africa today. We pay our bribes, small and seemingly insignificant as some of them may be, and then retreat into our silent despair. All the while the distrust and the fear grow within us.
No sweeping purge of senior officers, no extroverted posturing will change this deadly drip of decay. It is clear there is no political will from the top to change this reality. That may change in the future, but, for now, we citizens have to reclaim our sense of hope in those who are supposed to protect us.
We can start by paying the penalty rather than the bribe when we have transgressed. There are no easy answers, but there are small, even unremarkable, ways to begin.
*Hamilton Wende is a Joburg-based international commentator
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.