I had a run-in with the law. The story is comedy, not tragedy, and not particularly flattering to myself. At high school I was one of those irritating little boys of whom it is sometimes said “your problem is you think everything is up for debate”, a description that continues to hold a grain of truth today.
First comes the mission, though, which is no joke. The mission is deadly serious. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has released a 94-page policy document, Friends in Need, which is the basis of various public information campaigns, ongoing. When Institute of Race Relations (IRR) CEO Frans Cronje said that our policies, if implemented, could save lives and livelihoods, I stopped to think. He is right, and that entails a serious duty for us to get the word out as much as possible.
So, when Joburg Today invited me to discuss these proposals for their Covid Chronicles series, and said that this would have to be an in-person interview, I accepted the challenge to get to their studios in Richmond, Johannesburg. This would require crossing a provincial border.
But I’m clumsy and a bit dof in some ways. I was not sure how to get the right permit, so I did a little googling and found this site as the official issuer of press cards. The contact information, email and telephone numbers, led to dead ends. The South African Editors Forum was also totally unresponsive. I thought, hell, I’ll just go along and see what happens.
Without going 50 metres from the farm where I’m staying during the lockdown, I ran into a police blockade. They said I should go to the local small-town police station around the corner and fill out a form there, to be stamped, which would serve as my permit. I went to the police station, got the form, sanitized my hands again and left. I then went through two police blockades without a hitch using that form.
But then I hit a toll road. I looked in my wallet and found no cash, and realized I’d left my bankcard at home. Whoops (stupid Gabriel). “Please ma’am can you help me?” I ask, offering to make an electronic payment.
The cold has finally snapped though, so the toll operators bustle around with heaters and foot-blankies between booths, trading this for that, when they aren’t dealing with traffic. After half an hour of negotiating and waiting, I E-Wallet Nomuthemba R30 (on a R20 toll) and promise to bring her R20 in cash on my return trip. “Off you go” she says dropping her mask, and I wonder how many people could possibly find it more difficult to get through a tollbooth than a national lockdown? Probably just me.
Then I do the interview with Freek Robinson. What a guy. When I started learning Afrikaans as a child, Freek was the anchor of Focus, which had me glued and rethinking South Africa’s landscape. Freek also chaired the only SA presidential debate in my lifetime, between the incumbent F W De Klerk and forthcoming winner Nelson Mandela in 1994. Check out that debate on Youtube here, history in a flash.
After the interview, I run some errands (including a cardless ATM cash withdrawal), connect with sources in Yeoville and then turn home through Joburg’s CBD. In many parts, the CBD is busier than it was during the post-xenophobic riot unofficial lockdown last year. I discover that several people I know have relocated to different suburbs and different parts of Joburg during the lockdown. I leave.
I pay back my toll with another round of thanks and think all is well when I approach the provincial border blockade I’d passed through earlier, but this time from the Gauteng side.
“No, this form is wrong”, a young female officer barks. I begin to explain my story and she becomes agitated, talking louder and moving her jaw so vigorously that her mask falls off. She takes the form and goes off to show the officer in charge, Molefe (rank unconfirmed). He was shouting about how “wrong” my form is that I hear him from 30 metres off. He repeats his chant at my window. As he gets to me, I smile and say a few sorries and then explain that I’m just going home after conducting an essential service, but he shouts over me in concert with her.
In the distance, an army officer had been smoking a cigarette, bemused. He saunters over, pulls his balaclava and helmet back into place and eventually whispers: “You,” pointing at her, “you and you” pointing at him and me, “please don’t shout. Talk nice”.
I alight from the vehicle and go over to the police tent, begging them again to call the police station where I got my form, after those police had confirmed my credentials, but, the office tells me, “That is not my job!” I offer to call the police station myself but, again, the answer is no. I ask why my form was good enough to get me through the same blockade going the other way, but is not good enough to go back?
“No. This document says nothing.”
“But, officer Molefe, it says many things in plain English. Look at the top it says, in capitals, ‘DECLARATION OF CITIZEN’S MOVEMENT IN EXCEPTIONAL CASES’. Then it says my name and ID number, my essential service and so on. This form says so many things you can see for yourself.”
“No. It says nothing.”
I try again, pointing to words, and the signature.
“It says nothing.” (This is just like high school, I thought, and if he told me to do pushups or squats for insubordination that would be just like high school too).
Another car pulls up with heavier problems. Six people driving to a funeral. The High Court of Mpumalanga had just ruled against people crossing provincial borders to attend funerals and the team dealing with me went off to tell the funeral party they would have to turn back. From the start, the police spoke gently and apologetically: “We don’t make the rules, baba, I am very sorry, but I don’t want to lose my job, you will have to go back. Sorry, baba, so sorry.”
Like me, the funeral goers pull onto the grass island as if to turn back, but then stay put. If they’re not going, neither am I, especially since my journey is allowed by the lockdown regulations, no matter how much I wish theirs would be, too.
I look the other way and think again about how strange it is that the blockade on the other side of the highway is unstaffed, cars racing past unimpeded. Far from what I had been led to expect by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, there is nothing now to stop people from coming into Gauteng, but it is difficult to get out. This is even stranger to me, considering that at any given moment during my pseudo-detention there are at least a dozen police officers on this side doing nothing at all since there is so little traffic.
Another car comes up, this one with five people in it. A child sneezed in the back –but the form did not indicate that the child was sick, so they would have to go back and get a new form. They drive back so quickly after a quiet chat that I begin to wonder if there is another way.
During a break in the traffic I go into the tent again, asking why the officer did not speak nicely to me like he did to others?
“You said I am not reasonable, so then I shouted,” he explains.
“No, officer. I said that those who let me through on the other side of this blockade were reasonable. Unfortunately, now they are gone. You are also reasonable. But maybe you have not fully taken into account the very good reason of those other officers who let me through earlier. Maybe together we can all be even more reasonable”.
“No,” he said, “you are calling me unreasonable,” he said, and marched out of the tent back onto the road. I followed, but he shouted back: “No, I am done with you talking, talking, always talking. You must go home.”
My eyes light up. “Oh, thank you officer, I will go home, thank you. Home is that way,” I say, pointing onwards out of Gauteng, “so I will just go now.”
“No, no, no. I meant you must go back,” he says pointing the opposite way, whence I had come.
“But, officer, you said I must go home. That is extremely reasonable, the most reasonable thing I’ve heard all day. There is nowhere else I can self-isolate now that my job is done. If I go back to Joburg there is nowhere for me to stay; I will be a risk to myself and others with this virus flying around if I sleep on the street or beg a friend to sleep on the couch. So, I think that was a very good idea you had there to let me go through this roadblock back home.”
There was a long pause as we looked at each other. He couldn’t help himself. The corners of his mouth ticked up into a smile, and I said, “I got you there, hey”, and he laughed.
“You almost got me. You must go back.”
He rubbed his hands and, looking at me from the corner of his eye, chuckled. I realized the relief I must have provided from the tedium of his all-day permit-checking, punctuated mostly by turning back funeral-goers and assorted others whose plight he truly feels. A cheeky little amusement, me. We talk about his day, his heavy duty.
Eventually he tells me to go and talk to “the captain” again, a lower-ranked man of majestic build with a voice like old whiskey.
I had been at the blockade for an hour and a half by now, darkness had fallen, the captain was busy and I was curious about the comings and goings. So I lit a cigarette and scoped the incomers. The first driver was white, in his 60s, unlike any of the police or army there, and I wondered how he would handle this situation. He went into the tent smoking his cigarette, waving his hands around while making his case. He was soon dismissed angrily to stew in his ragged old car, grumbling under his breath.
Out came his daughter a while later, in her 30s, who told the officers through her mask in a strong Afrikaans accent, “We want to say you are doing a very good job, sir. You are all doing a very, very good job and we are so grateful. Thank you, mister. Thank you very much. You are the baas and very good. From the bottom of my heart thank you for protecting all of us. Please can we go?” As she spoke, she seemed unconsciously to begin rubbing her gloved fingers, bending her knee and tipping her head forward.
Handwringing remains a telling currency of exchange between civilians and officers in this country, and the old phrase shimmers up – the more things change the more they stay the same here. Half an hour later, the family were waved through.
Later to arrive but sooner to leave was a “black diamond” couple. He was wearing a shweshwe embroidered jacket and mirror-shiny, slick black shoes. Almost as soon as those shoes stepped out of the sportscar, he and the police were sharing jokes, even making warm physical contact. Though their documents were not exactly in order, fifteen minutes, and a few phone calls and WhatsApps later, the couple were off.
Having been there for nearly two hours, and having seen many more interactions under the diesel-powered light, I tire of the situation, stub out my smoke and go and look for the captain. We talk generalities for a while, but just as we’re getting friendly, he stops and squares me up.
“I am very disappointed in you, very disappointed. Really. You are a journalist. It is your job to tell people what to do, but you don’t even know the proper thing to tell them. Instead you are making trouble for us.” He had a point.
But I had one, too. “I am disappointed in you, captain. You misstate my duty as a journalist which is not to tell people what to do but to provide information. Your job, not mine, is to tell people what to do. I thought maybe we share a duty, you and I, to find the truth,” and so I went on. In ten minutes, a few officers had gathered around as we debated whether the police share the journalist’s duty to seek the truth, whether the truth can be established through different kinds of evidence, and what truth even means. When one of the officers started smiling at a philosophical point I scored, the captain stopped the game with a wave of his hand: “Enough!”
His subordinate said: “We are not going to decide whether the truth is one and the same for a hardcopy and a digital copy of a permit form, or whether they are totally different. You say they are different windows onto the same truth. Maybe that is clever, but we cannot decide that. We have a job to do here. You go ask the commanding officer if you can provide him with a digital copy of your permit then you can go. It is for him to decide.”
I am grateful to those police for debating truth and duty with me; it was funny at times and maybe even enlightening on both sides. I fully respect the final position that hierarchy must trump reason for them, too. But on another level the important shift that took place in that conversation was that I served my purpose, the entertainment was over. The syllogism that really mattered was: if we let him go then he will leave us.
Officer Molefe immediately laughed and said the digital copy would suffice so, two hours in, I finally called Frans Cronje, to write up a letter explaining my mission. This was done quickly, printed on the IRR’s letterhead and signed by the CEO, scanned and emailed back for me to show the police.
“Yes, this is perfect. You can go. But, see, if you had listened, you could have gone in five minutes. Instead you talk and talk and you stay here for very long. You could already have been home pata-pata-ring by now,” the top cop laughed.
“Yes, officer, I am learning from you. I am a slow learner, but I do learn. Thank you.” We said our goodbyes and, three hours latr, I reached home.
What did I really learn?
Not long after the funeral goers had come and gone, I learned from one of the oldest but lower-ranked police there that I could have turned back at any stage, gone fifty metres up the highway, hopped the bridge and taken a convenient dirt road that bypasses the roadblock to continue my journey. A few cars were sent back this way while I was there, and who knows how many when I wasn’t.
It is disturbing. Many police, like many South Africans (including myself), do not believe that all the regulations of the lockdown are just or proportionate. It is natural to point out bypasses that allow the most patient and well-motivated to circumvent the official system in this context. But it also severely undermines the credibility of the lockdown and of law enforcement.
The upshot is that our lockdown should really be called a national slow-down. It does not ‘lock’ the spread of the virus, but only slows it, and it does not ‘lock’ but only slows the movement of those determined to get through.
I also learned that trucks are not searched, and that truck drivers’ permits are easy to issue by practically any company remotely connected to logistics. The ban on transporting cigarettes and alcohol are, in this context, a joke.
I was in Joburg for a couple of hours, but I came across at least three places to buy illicit cigarettes and two illicit liquor stores. I wasn’t even looking (I’m already well stocked) but people were volunteering the information keenly. There is no surprise in this either; our police have been set up by odd regulations to fail in strictly administering the lockdown’s finer details.
And finally there is this. I know what it is like to have a gun pointed at my head. Two SAPS officers did this two me and a friend in Melville years ago while trying to extort a bribe. I have been struck by our police years ago, too. And I have been told by our police to lead the way into a building occupied by a clinical madman wielding a gun, and this after I’d dragged them from a restaurant I happened to see them in one Sunday afternoon when none were answering my calls and I’d gone driving around looking for help.
This experience was nothing like that. There was stubbornness, bureaucracy, even moments of rudeness, but zero active threat of violence and an admirable patience with me too.
Ryszard Kapuściński was surely one of the world’s experts in crossing blockades, having travelled much of Africa during its various civil wars as a Soviet bloc correspondent. Writing about the Congo (where brutality and deaths were several orders of magnitude worse than anything South Africa has ever seen) he noted that the fundamental currencies of exchange are time, money and violence.
It is a simple point, but one too seldom made in this country. Insofar as one does have control in any run-in with the law, time is a preferable currency to trade in than violence, which means spending time in which one does what one is told to do. A little of that could get you a long way. As officer Molefe said, if you get your documents in order in advance you’ll spend even less time than that – it’s disturbingly easy to do.
I arrived at the final roadblock hours later, at around 9pm. The police officer came to me slowly and asked my purpose. He then asked if I had a permit and I said yes, reaching for my laptop.
“No need,” he interjected. “You just tell me you have one and that is enough. Go on”.
Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations