My Police-Bruised Egoby Xolani Tembu / 09.07.2009
I am darker in complexion than your average South African; needless to say, I thus have often been mistaken for a Zimbabwean migrant or one of our brothers from the North, owing to my skin tone. Not that there is a skin tone quota that qualifies one to be South African, although you might not know it seeing there already is some form of profiling for darker brothers. Of course, I sound ridiculously prejudiced pointing this out. Again, that is the danger one runs when tackling issues of race and colour in South Africa, particularly with our history of racial oppression and ethnic violence.
I am the first one to applaud the women and men of the armed forces who risk their lives day in and day out to protect the people of this country. The SAPS is often criticized with being too slow to respond to a crisis and potential life-threatening situations. Much like the Department of Home Affairs which has recently been dumped onto the President’s ex-wife, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the SAPS too, are sick and tired of being the world’s laughing stock. South Africans have lost their only free pass into Europe via the United Kingdom. Now, like every other African state, we have to apply for visas to gain entry into the UK. This, owing to the corrupt bungling of our Home Affairs department. We should probably strike for the department to provide visa application fee stipends. But then again, they’d only be paying me back my money. Like any other good citizen, I pay tax.
I drive a Fiat Uno. When you see one of these at night, from a cop’s perspective, I suspect your cop gene starts tingling, particularly when it’s driven by a dark skinned oke like me. In Rondebosch where I live, the SAPS have suddenly tightened their grip and anything that moves around at night is viewed as suspicious. I have on several occasions been stopped and asked to be searched. I’m honest, so I oblige. What gets to me though is the feeling I get. Criminal. Unexpectedly, I feel dirty and
my attitude towards the cops changes. I register at the back of my mind that they are doing their jobs but I can’t help but feel like I am somehow being ill-treated, that somehow my rights may be in the process of being violated. My major concern is how they pick their potential suspects. On these various occasions that I have been stopped and searched, I was in close proximity of other folks of fairer skin but I am always the one singled out for closer inspection. This again sounds racially motivated, I assure you it is not. I am the last person to be prejudiced with all the colours, tribes and languages represented in my own family.
The other night, a week night, I was cruising down the main road and seasoned professionals in that once detested profession in South Africa are behind me. I know they are going to stop me. I take another peak at my rearview mirror just to ensure that it is indeed them. They drive behind me and as I reach my turn, I’m home. They drive past. As I turn and come to a halt, I drive past two suspicious white youths who walk past nonchalantly. Just as I am about to get out to open the gate, the cops turn the corner and stop right beside me.
“Get out of your car please.” One says.
‘I didn’t quite get that,’ I think to myself. So I say, “excuse me?”
Boldly, he repeats his sentence again. At this moment I am thinking to myself, their approach is rather unusual. I thought there are textbooks for such situations, you know, phrases to use when approaching potential suspects. Remember, what separates me from them is what they find when they search me or my car. He steps closer and says I should turn around and put my hands on the car. This is a first, it has never happened to me before. At this point I feel like I’m in an episode of New York Undercover. I oblige. The other cop walks around to inspect the car, looking for signs that it’s stolen.
“Turn around and lock your fingers behind your head.” He orders. The breeze, whooshing droplets of rain reassures me that I am awake and in South Africa. He searches me and then the car, in the process orders me to observe what he is doing in case he finds something and I claim he put it there. At the end of the search, he asks me what I do for a living. I tell him I’m a researcher. This seems to shame him as he apologetically points out that there is a lot of drug activity in “this area” and hence the search. My area – right? He just saw an evenly tanned figure in an Uno and his cop radar went haywire. There’s no admitting that though.
I did not expect him to apologize for doing his job. I don’t want him to. I am pleased that they are carrying out their routine stop and search because I want to feel safe day and night. The problem is the little voice that kicks in when it happens to me. How do I deal with the feeling of being approached as a criminal and in turn feel criminally violated. It is humiliating, belittling and shattering to my persona. I am the in-between generation. I was born towards the end of Apartheid South Africa and the beginning of democratic South Africa, thus I have psychological issues with the police, for obvious reasons. I don’t know how to deal with them because I assume that if you are not at the police station to lay a charge, then outside, you are automatically a potential suspect. That is how police law functions. No one is innocent. As I go to bed that night, I am nursing my belittled ego by having cooperated with my emotional molesters. I let them emotionally torment me, turn me around and touch me as they will. I let them look at me as though I was guilty of their suspicions. I wonder in my head, do they rejoice when they make a bust? When they turned around to come and search me, was it with hope and excitement that they would find something and then lock me up? Are cops addicted to the power trip? I wonder.