Keep the phones on

COVID-19 presents an unprecedented threat, but a campaign by South Africa's security forces attempting to grind defenseless people into dust does not guarantee success.

South Africa Police. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On the first morning of South Africa’s lockdown, a team of police officers and private security contractors with big assault rifles forced their way into our home in Johannesburg. They patted us down, searched the whole house, poured our beer into the fireplace and aggressively interrogated and berated us. When I tried to walk out of a narrowly crowded passageway, a security contractor stepped in front of me and said, “I’m not police, I don’t have to abide by their rules, I’ll break your fucking face.” I asked him why he would break my face. What I really wanted to ask is why he was wearing one of those balaclavas with the fascist-style print on the front. But then he put his hand on his weapon, so I did as he commanded.

Ten minutes earlier I had been in bed on my laptop. My brother had noticed commotion as the police gathered around a homeless man who lives on the pavement across from our home in Melville. Since the announcement of the lockdown, we had been concerned about the many people who live and/or work as informal traders, beggars, and car guards on what is usually a busy street. We knew only of a single press release that included one sentence about the government identifying “temporary shelters that meet the necessary hygiene requirements” for the homeless. But we also knew that there was hardly any information about what these shelters would look like or what life there would mean. We stood behind the burglar gate at the entrance of our two-bedroom home and watched quietly as the man desperately gathered what he could carry by hand, and ran off after being told that they would burn all his property if they found him on the street when they came back around. Then they turned their attention to us.

At first we thought it was a case of mistaken identity. One of them had pointed at my 20-year-old brother and said “that’s the guy.” About 10 of them walked over and demanded we unlock our gate and let them in. But, the more they searched and interrogated us the more confused I became. Suddenly three police officers were in my bedroom inspecting the anxiety medication on my desk, “looking for drugs.” They shouted at us for having beer, “choosing to live like this,” when we are so young. “You don’t know how old I am,” I whimpered. And why did they keep demanding to know who lives here after we explained again and again? Before they left, one of them said that they had just needed to know we weren’t running an illegal shebeen. As a young black person in Johannesburg, I’m fairly used to being profiled by law enforcement, but that didn’t explain why they stayed for so long or behaved so belligerently. After they left, I was glad I had not provoked them by mentioning that I work for a human rights law firm, or pointing out the laws they were breaking. I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if I had panicked or lost my temper.

One of the first friends I spoke to helped calm me down, then said, “If they’re doing this in leafy Melville, imagine what they’re doing in the townships, informal settlements and packed low-income urban areas.” Sure enough, anyone with the courage to open their social media account is immediately flooded with countless recordings and narrations of senseless violence from police, soldiers, and even private security. This was all happening on day one of a lockdown that had only been announced three days earlier. They’re riding around the country hunting the poor and vulnerable. Teargas, guns, water-cannons, brutal beatings and a wide array of innovative tactics to taunt and humiliate. It made our experience feel insignificant, but it also made the senselessness of it all make sense.

But why would they do this? Well, this is what South African police and private security companies do. I suppose they think it’s their job to go around the country heavy-handedly making sure that people are in their homes scared. And who could blame them? After all, we’ve heard the militaristic rhetoric coming from our leaders. It took me nearly five years of living at a public university residence to get it. Every time politicians, powerful bureaucrats, and rich people got nervous they would send the police to teargas us, chase us down, and shoot at us. As students we’d peek out from under our beds and scream “we live here!” As though, if only we could differentiate ourselves from the troublesome protestors (or the poor and homeless) and establish our status as innocent bystanders that might make us safe. In that same vein, we call on more brutality against whoever the bureaucrats tell us the bad guys are. But the problem with brutality is that it is brute—it doesn’t recognize bystanders, and it has no understanding of innocence. I tweeted our Friday home invasion experience immediately (I tweet everything immediately), and by the end of the day I was shocked at the number of strangers angry with me because they assumed I was lying or exaggerating for attention, or that we had surely done something to provoke the incident, or simply expressing pleasure at what they decided was a small price to pay for an increase in their safety.

I do not feel safer.

The people you would expect to be defending civil liberties are too busy celebrating false positives. Or embracing petty authoritarian ideas such as embracing alcohol prohibition and jailing people for fake news. Of course the army found some lawbreakers in their nation-wide raid. There was always a public health crisis in overcrowded townships. Stop celebrating action just because it is decisive. Decisive action mitigates some risks. But what exactly are we willing to call victory?

The independent police watch-dog (IPID) had encouragingly released “stand-by” numbers to further support the organization during the lockdown. What was unclear was whether this was IPID institutionalizing an “emergency” hotline available to the public to report cases of police assault during the lockdown. My friends and I repeatedly attempted to call the Gauteng number which kept going to voicemail because the mailbox was full. As it turns out, these stand-by numbers do not change the status quo of accessing IPID as the public. We are still expected to file a charge at a police station, wait to see if our charge goes anywhere, and if not, then escalate to IPID. We are expected to do this during lockdown when police are exercising their ramped-up powers to brutalize us for leaving our homes (or standing inside it).

At the end of the first day of lockdown, when Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, was asked about the risks of police using excessive force, he responded that the police were still being “very kind”, and added after a derisive laugh, “wait until you see more force.” The Financial Times spoke to a SAPS spokesperson about my experience and untold worse. The response they were met with assured them that nothing would go wrong if people simply complied with the regulations. By Monday morning, police raids had reportedly killed at least two innocent people. We have also discovered that the ombudsman responsible for military misconduct is closed for the 21-day lockdown period. We are living at the mercy of the security state and the government has turned the phones off.

We’re all afraid. We have been for weeks. But who are we protecting and from what?

Perhaps COVID-19 presents an unprecedented threat, but a campaign attempting to grind defenseless people into dust does not guarantee success. If there’s anything South Africans should have a knowledge of, it’s that people never grind that fine.

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