Scaring the nation with their guns & ammunition

I was surprised to hear that police in America kill roughly a thousand people a year. Not very impressive for a country that size. Here, our police get through that many in a month. Okay, I’m exaggerating. So shoot me.

Frankly, I don’t know why people are surprised. You know what would surprise me? If it turned out that the Ku Klux Klan was being funded by the Dalai Lama. Or that Steve Hofmeyr and Floyd Shivambu were romantically involved.

If a physics professor had to kill a bunch of people in the course of his work, I’d raise an eyebrow. But when I read that a cop has killed someone, I sigh and shake my head and open another beer. It’s a tragedy, but it’s about as unexpected as one of Helen Zille’s tone deaf tweets.

To become a policeman in this country, “you must be able to pass the psychological assessment administered by SAPS, which determines that you fit the profile of a police official”. The funny thing is, the very qualities that make you fit to be a policemen are the exact same qualities that should disqualify you from becoming one. It’s a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect for law enforcement.

Now there’s a word that makes you sit up and take notice. Enforcement. What do you think when you hear it? It evinces in me a fight or flight response. Or, more accurately, flight, followed by confrontation, then fight, maybe a bit more flight and, finally, handcuffs or hospital.

Some people are natural born enforcers. They can be found working as bouncers, repo men or bank managers. The rest are in the police. Obviously I’m talking about cops on the beat and not those who work in departments like forensics, ballistics, catering and so on, where they are hardly ever called upon to shoot someone in the face.

You might say we are all capable of killing a person if we really had to, and you’d be right. But we most likely wouldn’t be able to because it’s impossible to get a firearm licence and our knife skills are limited to buttering toast.

I’m not sure I have what it takes to kill people. I only recently stopped fishing moths out of the toilet, and that’s more because of lower back issues than any desire to watch the little fuckers drown.

You also have to be the kind of person who takes pleasure in telling other people what to do. Or, more accurately, what not to do. You need to enjoy taking command of situations. You can’t, for instance, be assigned to crowd control and then wander about saying, “I think everyone should just do whatever they want, man.” Your fellow officers are unlikely to appreciate it. The crowd would, though. They’d hug you and fist-bump you and pretty girls would offer to have sex with you. If I ever became a cop, I’d be that guy.

And you need to have a thing for uniforms. I pretty much wear the same clothes every day, but that’s more of a pandemic peccadillo than a predilection for uniforms. Some people turn into Nazis the moment they put on a uniform. Give a man a fishing rod and he’ll sell it for drugs. But give a man a uniform and a fishing rod and in no time at all he’ll be pepper spraying you and confiscating your fish.

We all know someone who possesses the attributes of a law enforcement officer. It could be a work colleague, a relative or even your spouse, although why you’d marry someone like that is a mystery to me. To be fair, they usually only become like that over time.

I saw them in the army. Even though we were all still teenagers, these guys were determined to make lance-corporal just to be able to have that tiny bit of authority over the rest of us who never gave a damn about rank and just wanted to get through two years without being shot or sent to DB.

The corporate world is awash in people with the instincts of policemen. I am ashamed to admit there have been times in my life that I have been a boss of people. One of the occupational hazards of working in the private sector, as opposed to the civil service, is that promotion is often a consequence of competence. I was merely the best of a bad bunch.

Having drunk from the poisoned chalice of middle management, I can say that I lacked whatever it took to rule through fear. Lacked might be the wrong word. We all have the capacity to be screaming banshees and utter bastards, but I got the best from my underlings without hardly ever having to put on the administrative jackboots. My crew knew it was okay to have a few drinks at lunch or arrive at work lightly stoned. Just as long as I could do the same. Egalitarianism rocks.

If someone had to force me, at gunpoint, to join the police, I’d choose whatever department it is that hostage negotiators work in. I imagine it’s the department with a Jacuzzi around the back, cold beer on tap and naked Polish fire dancers three times a week, otherwise what’s the point in having these mad negotiating skills.

In a situation, I’d ask to speak to the hostages. Get them to see things from another perspective. Make them realise that he’s so much more than just a maniac with a gun. I’d get them doing mindfulness exercises, then I’d walk in with my hands up and convince the hostage-taker to take us all to a nearby bar because it’s happy hour. The police would then have to bring in a second hostage negotiator to negotiate with me and I’d negotiate with that hostage negotiator to come into the bar and before you know it the place would be heaving with happy drunk hostages and hostage negotiators and a relaxed hostage taker and the police would eventually give up and leave and we’d all live happily ever after in a bar that never closes or opens.

I have met policemen in my life, but I have never had one over for dinner or a game of charades. When I was younger, a friend – let’s call him Gavin Meiring, because that’s his name – chose to do his national service in the police rather than the army. One afternoon he arrived at Durban’s Bay of Plenty in his yellow fokofpolisiekar. A few of us had been surfing and Constable Meiring seemed not to mind us climbing into the back of the van for a laugh. Then someone found a twist of weed ditched by a proper prisoner and we confiscated it right away.

My own father was a cop for the first few months of my life. He signed up because he fancied the idea of being a detective. That explained why, when I was older, he would interrogate me in the most brutal of fashions when I came home late after crashing the car. Anyway, his supervisor kept him on the beat, where he accumulated an impressive array of home-made knives and bloodstained screwdrivers that he’d bring home for me to play with.

We need to change the system. Stop recruiting people just because they have a matric, no visible tattoos, can speak a recognisable language and can’t get a job anywhere else. Let’s start hiring philosophers, psychologists and lapsed lawyers. Unleash brain power, not firepower. Open minds, not wounds. Spray love, not teargas. It’s very late. I should probably go and lie down.

  • This column first appeared in The Citizen on 17 June. More every Wednesday. Subscribe here: https://citizen.co.za/bundle-subscriptions/

Surfers waive the rules

In these outlandish times, the measure of all things needs to be constantly recalibrated if we hope to stand a chance of emerging relatively healthy and sane. So I don’t know if what is happening is a good thing or a bad thing.

I went surfing the other day. Don’t judge me. I didn’t drive through the suburbs spreading death and disease to get to the beach. I walk out of my gate, over some rocks and into the big wet thing. Yes, technically I broke the Law, but I, too, feel broken by the Law, and that’s all I can say about that.

I was among a handful of outlaws bobbing about in a cold, undulating ocean. A few guys and girls in their early twenties, a smattering of wild-eyed teenagers. One kid couldn’t have been more than twelve.

The waves were on the small side and there was no aggressive hustling as there usually is at this spot. Everyone was getting their turn. The sun, fat and orange like Donald Trump but way more useful, headed for the horizon as flocks of sacred ibises flew overhead in perfect formation. Then, in an instant, the mood darkened. Four police vans pulled up in the parking lot. They were about as welcome as a swarm of orcs gatecrashing Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party.

For surfers surfing illegally, there aren’t too many options in a situation like this. You could try paddling to Australia but you’d just get thrown into one of their filthy internment camps. The best is to sit tight and hope that the cops get hungry and go back to the station for a bunch of confiscated pies.

I wasn’t too worried. I’ve been arrested before – once in the 1980s under the Police Act, which was interesting. What I wasn’t keen on was spending a night in the cells in my wetsuit. A man of my boyish good looks and natural charm, wearing nothing but a figure-hugging latex rubber bodysuit, could easily find himself in trouble. Maybe they’d let me go home and change. Slip into something less comfortable. It seemed unlikely.

The younger kids, though. They were panicking. Their parents had encouraged them to get the hell out of the house for an hour or two so that mommy and daddy can have some alone time. Now look.

Unlike sex, surfing is not a team sport. Someone might paddle over and begrudgingly give a hand if it looks like you’re drowning, but generally it’s every man for himself. The coronavirus doesn’t stand a chance. You’d have to pay a surfer to get him to give you Covid-19.

The youngest of the crew was sitting near me. He had been having a great time until the cops arrived. The unsmiling enforcers of our insane new laws had spread out, sealing off the beach, and were settling in to wait for their catch of the day.

As I said, your choices are limited. You could pretend to be a piece of kelp and stay very still and hope that a great white shark doesn’t mistake you for a wounded seal. Or you could just keep surfing and wait for cover of darkness.

“What should we do?” the kid said to me, the very last person anyone should ask for sensible advice. His little privileged face was creased with concern and he seemed close to tears.

And that’s when it struck me. In the days of yore, white South Africans saw the police as allies. You’d call the Flying Squad if you were in trouble. Or if you saw a darkie acting suspiciously by, say, walking in your street after dark.

Sure, that particular kid wasn’t around in those days, but even so, it’s unlikely he or anyone in his family had ever considered the cops to be anything other than the Good Guys.

This whole fearing, dodging and lying to the police is all very new to white people. Out of nowhere (China), a virus is rapidly causing them to rethink their loyalty to an elected government and reconsider their trust in a police service which is quite clearly more of a force than a service.

Even though most whities never really bought into the ANC as a party capable of governing, they still clung to the idea that they could call 10111 and know that help would be on its way.

Now, they’re not so sure. Now the police no longer seem like the kind of people you’d want to call under any circumstances. If you had to, say, suffer an ischemic event while out for an illegal walk at 10am, you’d call anyone but the cops. Nobody wants to face additional charges of being drunk in public because their speech is slurred. Police are trained to recognise the symptoms of drinking, not strokes.

Obviously not all cops are vicious brutes incapable of independent, rational thought. But some people simply can’t help turning into instant assholes the moment you put them in a uniform. Hitler was probably pretty chilled on weekends, slopping about the Berghof in T-shirt and leather lederhosen, getting high on Bavarian skunk while painting tastefully lit nudes of Eva Braun. But come Monday, it’s on with the Schirmmütze and jackboots and suddenly it’s all, “Erschlagen alle Juden!”

People say children are adaptable and can handle anything. I don’t know about that. The kid in the water with me looked genuinely scared. This was clearly his first face-off with a bunch of angry black men with guns and handcuffs. Rookie.

He also knew that if he was arrested, his parents would discover that he was out surfing instead of doing virtual homework in his bedroom. During lockdown, angering mothers especially is to be avoided at all costs. Having had their husbands in the house day and night for two straight months, they are perilously close to cracking. There would be repercussions. Banned from surfing and without access to his phone, there’d be no point in living. I feel the same.

A lot of white kids, unless they come from a family of self-righteous snitches, are discovering that the authorities are not necessarily on their side. It’s quite an awakening. Breaking the law is a novel experience for a lot of whities and there’s a good chance they will develop a taste for it. As I said in the beginning, I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It could go either way.

I didn’t surf today. Instead, I poured myself a bootlegged gin and tonic and stood in my sand dune of a garden, watching the sun melt into the sea. I saw a dad push his kid onto a wave. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. The kid, not the father, although they do start young in these parts.

Life seems so much better when the police aren’t around.

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  • This column first appeared in The Citizen on 27 May. More every Wednesday. Subscribe here: https://citizen.co.za/bundle-subscriptions/