One evening, shortly after I met Khaba and Raymond and got intrigued
by what was happening on the strip on Ontdekkers Road,
my girlfriend and I were driving home from a movie. My girlfriend is a
health journalist. She has long dark hair, an impossibly cute face and a
solid idea of social justice. We are driving through Melville’s dark streets
when, on a residential road a few kilometres from her house, we get
pulled over. It’s startling and sudden. One minute we are cruising along,
chatting about the movie, and the next there’s a flashing blue light, a loud
whoop whoop of a siren, and voice saying, ‘Get out of the car, sir!’
My body serves me a strong shot of adrenalin. I am driving the same
dinky, black Ford Ka I use to visit Raymond. I don’t get out but push the
button in the car door allowing the window to slide a few inches down.
I hand over my licence. Two officers examine the plastic card together.
The first tells me he is going to put me in the van. ‘You’ll go to a cell.
You’ll go to court. You’ll go to jail,’ he says.
‘What? Why?’ I ask.
‘You’re drunk. You’ve been driiiinnnking. I can see in your eyes that
you have been drinking glasses of beer,’ the first cop says.
They ask me again to get out of the car and I do. The three of us
are lit by my own car’s headlights. The way one of the officers stumbles
and almost stands on my foot and the other squints at the (long-expired)
licence disc on my windscreen, trying to focus, reveals to me that these
men are crazy drunk. It’s not me who’s been driiiinnnnking glasses of
beer. Let’s get smashed and drive around Melville drunk – is that how it
goes? And more lightning is dumped into my bloodstream, because the
idea, which I admit was hovering at the back of my mind, of offering a
bribe starts to drift away as a possibility. These guys are here to fight, not
to earn. I edge a few inches to the left to try to get back into my car.
For clarity’s sake, I hadn’t been drinking, but for irony’s sake, I had
been watching a rather patchily written film called Four Corners at The
Bioscope in Maboneng. The film, which was South Africa’s submission
to the Oscars for Foreign Language Film in 2014, follows the convoluted
adventures of gang members of the 26s and 28s on the Cape Flats. In
a rather feverish conversation with my girlfriend about what we saw as
the film’s many faults, on the drive home we had just got to the CSI-like
actions of the police in the movie when I was pulled over by the two
drunken cops. We were complaining how the cops in the film didn’t feel
like they were in South Africa: they were spectacled, clean-cut, lecturer
types. They certainly weren’t like the guys we are contending with here.
I manage to get back into the car and lock the doors, but the window
is still open a crack and the second cop’s fingers keep edging through
at the top. I realise he is trying to open the door from the inside. The
first cop still has my licence between his fingers and he starts to talk
about blood tests in Hillbrow. I definitely do not want to go to Hillbrow.
This is the suburb where Chuba recruits most of his dealers. The first
cop beckons me, wanting me out of the car, to come and sit in their car
so we can talk ‘like men’ (they weren’t happy with my girlfriend, who
had been interjecting about our rights). I stay where I am, and jabber,
as unthreateningly as I can manage, all the while considering popping
the car into gear and bolting. I tell them they can give me a fine for the
expired licence disc and I will pay it right here, no problem. This is my
attempt at offering a bribe but they are having none of it. They tell me
that they are not JMPD and they don’t give fines: they want me in jail.
Then, when I have run out of options and with patience seeming to be
at a premium on their side, a plot contrivance happens that would have
been at home in the third act of Four Corners. (A boy is shot in this movie
in a fight with his estranged father and is saved because the neighbour is
carefully telegraphed as a doctor, which serves no purpose that I could see
but to complement this plot twist.)
So here’s my own true-life plot twist. Just as the angriest cop is
insisting that I come to the station, it begins to rain. Drops of water
bounce comically off their flak jackets and splash onto my windscreen.
The second cop begins to complain that he is getting wet. I sit tight and
wait. And after two minutes of fussing they retreat to their car and I hear
the engine start up. Once they are in the dry they sidle up to me, our cars
ten centimetres from touching, the rain now beating down hard. They
ask where I live. I say, ‘Over the road, a couple of blocks.’ They tell me to
drive; they will follow. And so they follow us as I drive as slowly and as
carefully as I can. I discover that my left leg is shaking and this makes it
challenging to keep the car in gear. And then I realise that by escorting
us home they will see where we live. This is the oldest intimidation tactic
in the book and I get the message. Don’t try anything with paperwork or
phone calls when Joburg gets a blue sky tomorrow morning because we
will remember this street, this house and especially this car.
I park in the driveway, retrieve my licence from the cops, mumble
platitudes to them about how they are only doing their job, I understand,
they don’t have to worry. To my huge relief I watch them drive off. Both
my legs are shaking by now. They proceed to do a lap of the block, passing
the house again, letting me know what could happen.
Safely inside the house my girlfriend and I have a cup of tea. I eat
a pear. We talk vaguely about where else – which countries and which
cities – we might move to. And then we go to bed.
There is another version of this story and it’s one that plays across
my mind sometimes before I go to sleep. I have to be thankful that the
second version didn’t become our story. We made it home and our state
protectors didn’t act fully on their whims.
The police have become a set of values and a population that we are
forced to live with. We are required to move around them as quietly as
possible. We are expected to believe that for them to abuse their powers
is perfectly within their mandate. That evening left me with a hard, black
stone in my body, a toxic gall-bladder that pumps inertia into my blood.
Ever since then there is a helplessness that creeps around inside me and
whispers that we are trapped and have no way to fight our way out.