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French journo 'brutalised' by metro cops

Yolandi Groenewald

SA police are investigating a case of police brutality aimed at an award winning French journalist, after her ordeal made headlines in France.

South African police are investigating a case of police brutality aimed at an award winning French journalist, after her ordeal made headlines in France.

Sophie Bouillon alleges that she and her Zimbabwean boyfriend, Tendai, were pepper sprayed and manhandled by Johannesburg metro police on Friday night after being stopped in downtown Johannesburg. The couple was arrested and held overnight at the Hillbrow police station, before being released on Saturday morning.

They will appear in court on Thursday morning on charges of driving without a valid drivers license, interfering in an arrest and resisting arrest, but Bouillon is confident that the charges will be dismissed.

Her damning account, which she at first only emailed to friends, was picked up by the French media this week and appeared in French daily Liberation among others on Monday. It has been well read by the French public, some who were outraged by the ‘level of violence” in South Africa. Her friends had also posted her version on Facebook.

The latest incident for South Africa follows the so-called ‘Kill-a-tourist-day” incident where a British actress Victoria Smurfit, who starred in Ballykissangel, told the Irish Mail on Sunday she ‘came within inches of death” when a gunman opened fire on her taxi while holidaying in Cape Town. The 35-year-old actress claimed the attack was likely to have been a gang initiation ceremony dubbed ‘Kill a Tourist Day’, but South African police denied this. The article also appeared in the UK’s Daily Mail.

World Cup
Like the Smurfit story, the French press had linked the story to South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup later this year.

The 25-year-old Bouillon won the prestigious Prix Albert Londres prize in France last year, the French’s Pulitzer, for her magazine feature on Robert Mugabe and is a well-known name in France.

On Wednesday afternoon she described her ordeal to the Mail & Guardian. She believed that the xenophobic prejudice from the arresting officer had played a big part in the incident.

‘He didn’t like the fact that a white girl was dating a black Zimbabwean,” she said.
Bouillon said she was horrified how quickly the confrontation had gotten out of control. She described the officer as a ‘very dangerous man”.

In her verbatim account, written in the style of a short story and published by the French newspapers, she described how she and her boyfriend were driving in downtown Johannesburg to attend a concert, when they were pulled over.

Registration number
‘You don’t have a registration number for foreigners, the policeman says,” she wrote. ‘That’s a number you need to get from the police station.”

But, Bouillon wrote, she had never heard of such a registration number.

When she could not produce the ‘registration number”, she was fined R1 000, much to her boyfriend’s disgust.

‘Don’t worry, Tendai answers, we will get it cancelled, this number he is asking for doesn’t exist,” she wrote. ‘Tendai’s last sentence got things started.” The officer got angry.

‘So, you Zimbabwean, you think you know South African law better than me?” she quotes the officer as saying to Tendai. ‘Now that you are so confident about this, look, I’m gonna (sic) take your girlfriend to the police station. She is going to court on Thursday. Meanwhile she will stay the whole weekend in a cell.”

Jail for both
Bouillon says she was then taken to the police van. After half an hour her boyfriend came to check on her and asked the policeman to let her go.

‘Come on, I don’t want you to take her anywhere. Are you crazy or what,” Tendai then said to the officer. The officer apparently didn’t like this.

‘Am I what? Crazy? Ok, you come and spend the night in jail as well,” Bouillon quoted the officer as saying.

‘He throws himself onto Tendai and tries to handcuff him,” she wrote. Tendai then shouted ‘Fuck you” to the officer.

‘The cop puts him down. Tendai’s head hits the pavement and gets pepper sprayed. He screams,” she wrote. He is then punched in the face and his jacket is full of blood, according to her account. When she gets out of the van to hold his hand, she is pepper sprayed as well.

An hour and a half later they are driven to John Vorster police station, where she says Tendai was subjected to more police brutality and humiliation.

Burning pain
Burning in the aftermath of being sprayed, he asked to wash his face to get rid of the pain, Bouillon said.

‘The cop had a trick to calm the pain. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke onto Tendai’s face. The pain gets worse,” she wrote.

After two hours, Bouillon said they were moved to Hillbrow police station, where she shared a cell with 10 other girls.

‘The cell [at John Vorster] would have probably been too clean or not crowded enough for two criminals like us,” she said. They were held in the cell until 5.30am the next morning.

Bouillon also describes in her account interactions with a drunk officer in charge of the Hillbrow police station, and his shocking xenophobic comments, while signing their release papers.

According to Bouillon the police officer said that they ‘were driving on my roads, built by my taxes”.

‘That evening, I had planned to write an entry for my blog called ‘South Africa is not Angola’ to remind people that South Africa is ready to host the World Cup. I decide not to,” she ends her story off with.

Bouillon told the M&G that she loved South Africa and fell in love with the country the moment she arrived in Cape Town and volunteered in Khayalitsha, a disadvantaged area. Most of her reporting is done in Zimbabwe, but she lives in the Johannesburg suburb of Melville. In the days after her arrest, she said, she thought about leaving South Africa, but she believes that the officers involved in her ordeal are just bad pennies and should not taint South Africa’s image.

Xenophobia
But she said she had often encountered xenophobia in her reporting in South Africa, especially when she visited Hillbrow and Yeoville where foreigners were rounded up and ‘then had to pay bribes to be released”.

The reason for her arrest, the lack of a registration number on her international drivers license, remained a mystery. Her lawyer, Kevin Louis, said he had never heard about such a request before.

She had been stopped before, she said, but no one had ever found fault with her drivers license.

Superintendent Wayne Minnaar from the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), said Internal Affairs were investigating the incident and that due process would be followed. At the moment it is only a preliminary investigation, however.

‘We don’t know what transpired between the officer and Bouillon. We have to get his account as well,” Minnaar said.

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the fine imposed was R8 000 instead of R1 000. Also the police comment about Bouillon driving on “my roads” was allegedly made by a Hillbrow police officer, not the metro police.
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