You honestly wouldn’t have guessed that the guy was an intelligence operative. A big guy, sure, but dressed like he was going to the beach. No ill-fitting suit or wrap-around sunglasses.
But as he stood near the barricades where the President’s motorcade would soon pass en route to the opening of Parliament, you could see him scanning the small crowd of bystanders. Always watching.
“So what are you, the Secret Service?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.
“Something like that,” he says.
“Crime Intelligence?” I ask, referring to the police’s intelligence division.
“Yes,” he says, so matter of factly that it caught me off guard. That the state intelligence agencies surveil protesters and activists, including deploying undercover agents to crowds, is not news, but I did not expect such candour.
I ask him how many of his colleagues are here, fishing for a general number. But my new friend surprises me again, and points.
“There’s one, and the guy next to him. And over there.” We are at one of the short stretches of the parade route that has been opened for public bystanders. Maybe 20 metres long. The crowd is thin here, just a few dozen people. He’s just told me at least four undercover intelligence agents are among them (including him). One can only imagine how many have been deployed in total.
Why would he tell me this? I assume because, like many others, he is disgruntled at this state of affairs. That his mind boggles at how much security and resources have been brought to bear on this occasion — essentially, to control the crisis of one man.
Everyone I speak to says this is an unprecedented level of security for the opening of Parliament.
Barbed wire has been rolled out along Darling Street and Adderley, effortlessly rolled off the back of those trucks that we remember from Marikana. Eight-foot high metal barricades line the route that Zuma will take – coming past District Six down Roeland Street, right on Plein Street, left on Spin Street, and pulling into Parliament’s gates behind the Slave Lodge.
The police are out in numbers that are simply extraordinary. There is a phalanx of cops on every corner and many have formed barriers across major intersections, backed up by Nyalas and water cannons. Units of the Public Order Police –our riot police – seem to have been called in from every corner of the country. I see SAPS bakkies from as far off as Upington and Kimberley. We hear reports that police have been bussed in from other provinces too. The city’s municipal police divisons are all out in riot gear too.
Farther back I see a few members of South Africa’s controversial paramilitary units, the Tactical Response Team with their berets, and the Special Task Force with their SWAT-style helmets. (Not carrying rifles, for once.) Off to one side, we even see a cluster of Cape Town’s liquor squad dressed in body armour. None of them looks too happy.
With this show of force, I wonder who the hell is policing the rest of the country? It’s an uncomfortable point for those who believe there should be fewer police, or none at all, but most people living in South Africa want more and better police in their communities. In surveys, crime features as the second or third biggest concern for citizens, after jobs and housing. The police have been slammed before for their unequal allocation of resources. So what is the knock-on effect on the safety of ordinary citizens when hordes of police are withdrawn from the communities they are ostensibly meant to serve, and dragged all the way to Cape Town to form a wall between the President and the people?
Several protests have taken place today, across a wide political spectrum. A Zuma Must Fall march unfolded without incident earlier in the day, and the ANC-aligned Ses’khona People’s Movement and MK Veterans Association marched ostensibly to commemorate the anniversary of Mandela’s release, though they are led by a banner saying “The DA Has Hatred for Black People”. As the day grows later, a large crowd of EFF supporters splits off from the Zuma Must Fall gathering, and heads up Adderley Street with a contingent of Pan Africanist Congress activists and students under the banner of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Suddenly, up ahead, the police have blocked the way with a wall of shields. We can’t see what’s happening from further back, but suddenly stun grenades are exploding at the front and everyone falls back. Later, video footage of skirmishes between a few Ses’khona supporters and the EFF will appear online, but largely people are pissed off but peaceful.
Accusations circulate later on social media that police played a partisan role, policing some protests aggressively while giving others space. Photos also emerge of a riot cop tearing up placards brought by the students. One reads: No Free Education No Vote.
Eventually, in a quieter side of town, Zuma’s motorcade sweeps in. And it’s eerie. The marching bands have come and gone. Honour guards from the Navy stand in silence along the route. The crowd is so thin where I’m standing that bystanders are outnumbered by theParliamentary security staff. Suddenly, military police trot past on horseback. Then military police on motorbikes. Then several sedans full of presidential security, and then Zuma himself sweeps by in what can only be described as a Pope Mobile. He waves, but there is almost nobody here to see him. Aside from the hum of engines, the moment passes in silence. Later I will read that he did not walk the red carpet per tradition, but was driven right up Parliament Avenue and deposited on the very final stretch of red carpet.
Put these security measures together, and you have to assume that important people believe this man is unsafe. The threat assessment must be off the charts.
Later, as dusk gathers I get on my bike and cruise the empty streets around Parliament, the President’s address streaming through my headphones via the SABC. “Compatriots,” he tells us, “We are proud of our democracy and what we have achieved in a short space of time.”
I go past barbed wire and barricades and detritus.
“Our democracy is functional, solid and stable.”
I pass an armoured Nyala, where a cluster of cops from some other place are listening to the address as well.
“The Constitution, which has its foundation in the Freedom Charter, proclaims that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”
We should not fall into the trap of Zuma-Must-Fallists who attribute all our problems to one man. But the ruin and the chaos in our streets today seem like the product of a system that has stretched and distorted to accommodate the crises of one man. It has bent itself to be shaped to his needs. And it probably can’t bend much further.