Blue-light Bullies: balancing VIP protection and public safety

A presidential convoy being escorted by motorcycles. File Picture: WILLEM LAW

A presidential convoy being escorted by motorcycles. File Picture: WILLEM LAW

Published Jul 4, 2023


Concerns have been raised about the aggressive and often dangerous driving behaviour of the “blue-light brigade”, the police officers attached to the SA VIP Protection Services after yet another incident of their alleged bullying tactics emerged on Monday when a video went viral of them assaulting three men on a highway in Johannesburg.

Over the years, there have been several calls for the “Blue-light Brigade” to be reined in amid several incidents in which they have been involved - including the death of civilians.

A 2013, academic research from Charnelle van der Bijl of the University of South Africa (Unisa) titled ‘Blue-Light Brigades and the Politics of Bad Driving’ scrutinised their alleged bullying and reckless road conduct, calling for a balance between VIP protection and public safety.

The “blue-light brigade” is infamous for incidents involving innocent civilians, the most noteworthy being the 2011 case of Thomas Ferreira, critically injured by a Member of the Executive Council's (MEC) vehicle.

Despite local outrage and the then Western Cape Premier Helen Zille proposing provincial legislation to curb the issue, the problem persisted across other provinces.

The Unisa study questions the VIP units’ supposed immunity from standard road traffic regulations. It draws upon the National Road Traffic Act of 1996, which states that disobeying road signs or exceeding the speed limit is an offence.

It further prohibits the equipping of non-emergency vehicles with blue lights, raising questions about whether the VIP units should qualify for the same immunity granted to emergency services.

The research underlines the importance of the VIP units operating within the boundaries of "due regard" for other road users' safety, in compliance with the Road Traffic Regulations of 2000.

Failure to exercise such regard can lead to charges of reckless or negligent driving.

Diving into the criminal liability of these VIP units, the study notes that reckless driving or gross negligence could be attributed to VIP Protection Units who show a disregard for public safety.

Public violence charges could be considered if their actions result in forcibly disturbing public peace.

However, proving such charges presents a challenge, as it demands evidence of serious intended violence carried out by individuals acting with a common purpose.

Crucially, the research prompts a national discussion about the constitutional rights of citizens and the behaviour of VIP units.

The Constitution of South Africa advocates equality before the law, freedom and security of the person, and protection from violence. Broad immunity for VIP units could potentially infringe on these constitutional rights.

Potential legal challenges may arise regarding the exemptions granted to VIP units under the National Road Traffic Act.

Suggestions to resolve this dilemma include testing the administrative decision to employ VIP units against the constitutional principles of democratic values, accountability, and conflicts of interest.

The study concludes that it is crucial to balance the protection of VIPs with the rights and safety of the general public. A comprehensive legal framework governing the conduct of VIP Protection Units is vital to resolve the issue.

It calls for restrictions on the number of VIP bodyguards to only those individuals in genuine danger, reallocating resources for effective crime combating and public safety.

The research places the onus on the state to ensure the safety of all citizens from violent crime and hints at the state's possible vicarious liability for MECs and VIP members' conduct within their professional scope.

It finally calls for national legislation or provincial regulations to ensure road traffic equality, uphold constitutional principles, and ensure a safer road environment for all South Africans.

IOL News