Scary stories from a lovely place
Last night one of my worst nightmares was realised. I was stopped at a Metro Police roadblock, in town, in misty darkness. I wasn’t actually driving though, my friend Amanda had that privilege and her ‘Sawubona’ is much more convincing than mine (it’s her first language after all). So my worst nightmare wasn’t actually realised, but close. This has lead me to reflect on my varied and often troubling relationship with the Johannesburg Metro Police or JMPD, not to be confused with the South African Police Service, my friends the SAPS.
I actually shouldn’t complain too much about the Metro Police as I have very few personal grievances to report. I have only been stopped by them once and that was on the highway as I was heading out of Gauteng bound for Cape Town. It’s a bloody long drive so I was probably going a little fast until I spied a man on the road in front of me, waving me down. I didn’t realise he was a cop, so when I managed to stop my speeding bullet I was actually well past him. As I wrote in another blog post, flirting saved me on this occassion. On presentation of my Australian driver’s licence the Metro Cop said “do you always try and kill your police in Australia”.
Giggling just a little, “what, kill them? Of course not.” (Always smiling sweetly).
“You were going over 140 kilometres an hour!”
Still being sweet and now taking on an innocent posture, “what? 140! Nooo. Do you really think this little car could go that fast?” (Smiling, always smiling).
“Well you were going very fast!”
“No, this car isn’t very good, it can only go as fast as 120km/h”.
“Ok then, well just make sure you stop faster than you did.”
“Ok sir, thank you” (smiling, smiling, smiling).
No fine. I probably was speeding. I did nearly hit him. But he let me go. A common criticism of the Metro Police is that they’re always seeking bribes, but in my interactions that has never been my experience. Why then would I fear them so?
Firstly, in late June 2008 I was driving home from Rustenburg where I had dropped a student after a camp (in Aussie terms, sort of like driving from Katoomba to Sydney). Dusk was falling. I was tired and feeling generally rattled. My company for the long drive home was to be Radio 702 which was updating me on the unfolding Metro Police strike scheduled for that afternoon. In true South African strike style, this was not to be a peaceful demonstration nor delivery of a petition with a little marching and banner waving. (“What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!” Not quite). That afternoon the Metro Police blocked highways and barricaded office buildings in town and wouldn’t let innocent drivers or city workers leave. As I listened dozens of commuters, pedestrians and employees phoned Radio 702 with harried stories of intimidation at the hands of the armed Metro Police. Eventually the SAPS arrived to break up the fray. The Metro Police and SAPS pulled their weapons on each other, the former firing theirs into the air. Policeman v Policeman, not comforting.
Secondly, early this year I was at a mexican restaurant in Melville. In the middle of our nachos and coronas Cafe Mexicho was targetted for a City of Joburg raid, carried out by my friends the Metro Police. About 30 Metro cops poured into the rather small Cafe Mexicho, some with enormous rifles, others with torches, and proceeded to check the restaurant’s licences, wiring and toilets, rather banal tasks for the soldiers of the JMPD if you ask me. In reality only about 3 guys did the checking, the others chilled at the bar sipping iced water (to their credit, not alcohol). While all this was going on a rather drunk middle aged white lady decided she was going to put these guys in their place. (My internal monologue is in brackets). She began by speaking rather loudly of the problems with the JMPD (shut up lady, it’s the Metro Police). Dissatisfied with the result she left her table (oh no she’s going to talk to them. Has she seen the rifles?), and approached a gang of male and female officers (it’s the freaking JMPD lady!) and proceeded to berate them for coming out in such force (crap, shut up, shut up, shut up). I don’t know if it was the effect of the iced water on a warm evening, or the alcohol surging through her blood but frivolity was certainly in the air and she ended up having a good old laugh with her new friends (gosh).
My extreme reaction to the JMPD presence (massive guns wielded by the unscrupulous!) was clearly related to my previous experiences with them. This extreme reaction has been repeated over the last couple of years everytime I drove past a Metro Police car, roadblock or officer. I fear them.
In closing allow me to share a story of my interaction with the SAPS, and you can decide for yourself which brand of police you prefer. I have visited the Brixton police station on many occasions. Mainly to get copies of documents certified, and indeed this seems like one of their major services to the community. But also to report crimes, accompany others reporting crimes, visit the trauma counselling centre (not for myself thankfully) and to be fingerprinted for a criminal record check for Home Affairs. During my most recent fingerprinting visit I had a lovely interaction with a middle aged officer named Sibusiso, who we’ll call Sbu. I was upstairs in the payments office getting a receipt for my certificate when Sbu noticed my Australian passport. “Is Australia nice?” he asked.
“Yes I like it.”
“I know Steve Irwin, a great man.”
Smiling, “yes he was great” (even though that’s contrary to what I think).
“The crocodile man, I love his shows. Yes I love Steve Irwin.”
A little confusedly, “you know he died, right?”
“What! No, he can’t have, not the crocodile hunter.”
“Ja (South African for yes, stupid) it was a few years ago, he was making one of his videos.”
In sadness and disbelief, “no, not the crocodile hunter”. (A moment’s silence for respect). Then he rushed to the door, and leaning into the hallway called “Heita! (a South African greeting or way of getting attention) Hey, chief, Steve Irwin is dead! Yes dead!”
After consoling Sbu and his fellow bereaved SAPS officers, paying my fee and then being fingerprinted I was directed outside (past the cells….) to a tap to wash my inky, criminal fingers. While minding my own business (and trying to forget walking past the cells) Sbu came upon me in haste; “he is really dead then, Steve Irwin?”
“Yes he is, sorry.”
“Oh ok.” Awkward pause. “Do you live close?”
“When will you have me over for supper?”
“Uhmmmm, let me check with my husband and I’ll let you know. Ok, bye bye then.”
In conclusion, awkward, but nice and much more peaceful than my relationship with the JMPD.