Saturday, May 07, 2005


[Don’t panic because you see words. More music to follow. Just ignore this post and look for those nice little links to the tunes.]

… is still not something that any reasonable South African could say. To be a cop in SA is still among the most thankless, difficult and dangerous jobs there are. Just today, the Saturday Star - in a new low even for that dirty rag – printed on its front page a photograph of the hysterically distressed 23-year-old widow of Constable Johan Slabbert – the latest of the many police murdered in the line of duty – standing by her dead husband’s coffin. To the editors and management of the Saturday Star: Fuck you. That picture is not for public consumption – when did private grief become a public commodity? Have the public grown weary of national crises, of the suffering masses? Would you have put a story about yet another murdered policeman on your front page if not for the striking, chilling, sensational photograph with which to accompany it? Aids orphans not pulling in readers anymore? And what business does a junk tabloid – for long will you pretend still to be a real newspaper? – have in dealing with real human issues. Fuck you. Print all the shallow, lurid, sensational trash you want - but realise you have lost the privilege of declaring any moral position, of possessing any moral role or status. If Independent Newspapers feels it good for business to run a tabloid, they’re probably right. (A reality the daily Star is every day less abashedly embracing.) But to peddle shock, moral indignation (of the most reactive, unthinking kind), and sordid speculation as serious news and analysis is unforgivable.

After that diatribe, what I was going to say next – the reason I began this post in the first place – feels at some level petty and improper. But I do think it is important and valid, so I’ll go ahead. But I will try to constrain my tone.

Not long ago the Hectic Kru were pulled over by Jozi’s finest. Cars and bodies were searched. Admittedly, we were acting a little shifty, and it was not unreasonable to think we might be up to some form of no good. The cops were extremely professional and courteous. But when I asked whether I could refuse the search, I was told that this is not a right that I have. Apparently section something or other of some act (how is it that we know nothing about these things? Is it just our ignorance? Do the authorities have some obligation to keep us informed? Is this information easy to get hold of?) gives the police the right to search civilians without consent, even if there is no reasonable evidence of a crime committed or intended. If this is correct, that is disturbing. If it is not, it is disturbing that the police feel confident to make the assertion. The fact is, in the majority of cases you are powerless to prevent a police search of your personal property.

Most local readers will be familiar with the spate of police raids over the last few months of clubs and bars. Again, the cops file in and search through your stuff. I always assumed that you were entitled to refuse a personal search. When I asked (yeah, I should probably learn to keep my mouth shut) I was told by a senior-looking officer that as they had a warrant for the premises, the police were allowed to forcibly search through my pockets and personal effects. Could this possibly be true? I doubt it – perhaps some vintage statutes make these kinds of allowances, but surely it’s unconstitutional and shit. (dang, why didn’t I study law?) But if it is, the implications are outrageous: by entering a public venue, you are incriminated, or become an object of legally mandated suspicion. Privately choosing to enter a public space is sufficient provision of probable cause to make permissible a violation of your individual privacy. If this is not in fact the case – and I pray that it isn’t – then the police are consistently and flagrantly abusing their power and misinforming the public.

On the one hand we have Metro Cops straightforwardly asking for bribes. No more hinting, no euphemisms about ‘spot fines’ – just plain, shameless demands for money. On the other hand, we have the national police with their tough new professional take-no-prisoners attitude. (I tried to buy a couple of quarts the other night from my local Louis Botha tavern. The doorman wouldn’t let me take them out because of the new crackdown on these kinds of bylaws. In the end, I was forced to bribe him with Black Labels.) On the genuinely – traumatically - mean streets of Jozi, we were at least assured of the absence of petty-minded authority and harassment (in the privileged environs of the suburbs, anyway. more on that next post). Given the genuine mandate to get serious on crime, and the assurance of overwhelming public support for just about any venture in that direction, the government has exercised remarkable, and commendable, restraint in the deployment of it’s security apparatus. The government has chosen not to impose upon civil liberties excessively – despite how this would bolster authority and control, and despite the fact that there is enormous scope to spew all manner of apparent validation. The government is frequently criticised for being defensive about crime figures. What is overlooked is how they are refusing to incite panic, to play up to our fears, and use this to legitimise an entrenchment of centralised authority and reduced personal liberties.

Now I’ve got to admit that a bit of ‘broken windows’ style policing isn’t the worst thing that could happen to Joburg. Not only is crime no joke, it’s starkly, deathly serious. And this is why there is the suspicion of pettiness, the apparent taint of selfish privilege (‘why can’t I just smoke my joint in peace? Go find some real criminals. I pay your salaries’), when we start to query the methods of criminal prevention. (And if they get serious about enforcing intellectual property legislation, well we’re pretty fucked then, aren’t we…). But we really ought to ask some hard questions before we dumbly accept the Giulianification of our city. Firstly, is this effective? Will lives be saved, will society be improved, by the restriction of our personal and public freedoms. If so, is it worth the price? Perhaps. But let us be very clear what is at stake. For example, they’ve now toughened up on enforcing drug legislation. If they catch you with a bag of weed, or a gram of coke, you spend the night in jail. If this happens at night, you’re pretty fucked. You have to see a magistrate or go through some kind of official process (Ah blogs! No editor, no research, no rigour) before they let you out. Is this really the kind of society we wish to live in? Is it going to reduce violence (in this country more about social dislocation than poverty) to criminalise stupid kids? Do we want and deserve a society of overreaching authority, reduced personal expression, institutionalised fear, official panic and sanctioned state suspicion? Are we going to accept this silently?

And thank you, sincerely, to the thousands of underpaid, overworked policemen and women who daily risk their lives (non-SA readers may not appreciate the terrible truthfulness of that seemingly overworked phrase. Local cops routinely find themselves under fire in the line of duty. It is a horrific, unspeakably hazardous, unbearably demanding vocation) on our behalf.


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