/ 23 March 1990

Rockman gets the sack

The dismissal of Rockman, president of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), is likely to bring the dramatic protest action to a head. Only hours before his dismissal was announced, Rockman gave details of a march on parliament planned for March 31 by Popcru members ”from across the country”. 

Commissioner of Police General Johan van der Merwe issued a statement last night saying he had ”dismissed two more members of the SA Police Force this afternoon … due to their involvement in strikes.” His spokesman, Brigadier Leon Mellet, said one of those fired was Rockman. Earlier this week, Rockman withdrew from a police disciplinary inquiry against him, saying he could not see himself getting ”a fair hearing”. Rockman, who sprung to prominence when he spoke out against police brutality during last year’s general election, said he was being judged in the inquiry by the very people he had criticised. He said he would be happy to face the same charges before an independent board of inquiry presided over by a ”non-policeman”, such as a magistrate. Rockman was suspended from the police force late last year.

In terms of police procedures the inquiry can continue in Rockman’s absence, but he cannot be compelled to attend, his attorney said this week. Popcru members around the country last night were continuing with their protest despite this week’s action against them, including the summary dismissal of 38 Eastern Cape policemen for taking part in the sit-in called by Popcru. It is the first such action within the police; force since 1917, when dissatisfaction over staff shortages, low-pay and poor working conditions culminated in a police strike. 

Rockman, told the Weekly Mail yesterday only hours before his dismissal – he was ”very happy with the way things were going”. He said the union had received reports of protest action by police and prison warders in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Worcester, East London, Fort Beaufort, Grahamstown, Queenstown, Johannesburg and King William’s Town. However, he would not divulge how many of Popcru’s claimed 5 000 members were involved. He also announced details of the march on parliament in which Popcru members would present a memorandum stating their demands for the reinstatement of an estimated 300 members suspended or dismissed and immediate negotiations between the union and the government. 

In the Eastern Cape, policemen dismissed for taking part in the national sit-in were welcomed with cries of ”Viva!” and clenched-fist salutes by residents of East London’s Pefferville township on Wednesday. ”We know we have blood on our hands,” said one policeman. ”We won’t wash it off in the bathroom, we will wash it off in public.” At one point white riot squad members pulled the cheering cavalcade off the road and threatened them. Police then moved into Pefferville in armoured vehicles and dispersed the crowds. In King William’s Town on Wednesday, seven policemen and 40 warders gathered at the prison under an African National Congress flag. Six of the policemen – the seventh was officially on leave – were disarmed by the King William’s Town station commander. 

A police spokesman confirmed disciplinary action against 31 policemen from the East London area- including riot squad members and members stationed at the airport and police stations in Duncan Village, Fleet Street and Cambridge- and against seven King William’s Town policemen. Despite the dismissal of the policemen, about 105 warders at East London’s Fort Glamorgan Prison continued yesterday with their protest. The. policemen said they had not been informed of their dismissal and were shocked to hear a radio news report quoting the police commissioner as saying they had been summarily dismissed because he ”had reason to believe that had gone on strike or plotted to go on strike”.

At Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison, 68 prison warders were arrested after a sit-in and placard demonstration on Wednesday. They later appeared briefly in the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court and were released with a warning to reappear on May 7. Yesterday the warders staged another placard demonstration – this time outside the prison gates. They held placards stating ”Popcru for a new South Africa” and ”Popcru for a better police and prisons service”. Said Rockman: ”As we are suspended, so we will move our protests and continue outside the prisons and police stations.” He was ”very proud” of Popcru members who had taken this ”bold and brave step. ”It shows the kind of calibre of Popcru members – the kind of police and prison warders a new South Africa will benefit from,” he said.

Since then, Rockman has written a number of letters to both Minister of Police Adriaan Vlok and Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee. According to Rockman, no acknowledgement of the letters has ever been received. Approached for comment, Brigadier Erica van Zyl of the South African Prisons Service said she could not say how many of the country’s 205 prisons were affected, nor how many warders were on strike. She told Weekly Mail the situation ”fluctuated from day to day and from place to place”. There were ”a number of people not performing their normal tasks”, however. Prisons commanding officers were dealing with the situation, she said, adding that this did not mean that the Prisons Service was engaged in talks with Popcru.

”Popcru is not a recognised union in terms of existing laws. We in the Prisons Service do not belong to unions,” she said. An official statement said: ”At certain prisons there were personnel who did not perform their normal duties. Ample opportunity exists to raise grievances with the management of the SA Prisons Service at the various levels. ”The Prisons Act and regulations provide for the effective procedure for such grievances to be dealt with responsibly. ”Comprehensive steps have already been initiated to identify predicaments and grievances within the SA Prisons Service. Given the financial and other realities, these matters will be investigated and addressed systematically in the short, medium and long-term.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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