Charges against French journalist Sophie Bouillon and her boyfriend were dropped on Thursday morning, after her story of alleged police brutality in Johannesburg caused a stir in the media.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, Bouillon alleged the ‘nonsensical attack” on her and her boyfriend by Johannesburg metro police officers had been informed by xenophobic prejudice.
Bouillon and her Zimbabwean boyfriend, identified only as Tendai, were allegedly pepper sprayed and manhandled by metro police officers on Friday night, after they were stopped at a roadblock in downtown Johannesburg on the way to a concert.
Bouillon was charged with driving without a valid driver’s licence and Tendai was charged with “interference”, or obstructing the course of justice.
Her story has caused an outcry abroad and was first told locally by the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday evening.
Bouillon, who is a foreign correspondent in Africa and has spoken about her love for South Africa, cautioned against overreacting. “I didn’t think this would be such a big story in France and I would really like to calm it down because I think it could have huge consequences,” she said.
The metro police said on Thursday they were investigating a case of brutality.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugee and Migrants Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said her organisation had seen many attacks on foreigners instigated by xenophobic sentiments and that attacks have been taking place throughout South Africa for several years.
“Dealing with xenophobic crimes do not appear to be high priority for the police or NPA [National Prosecuting Authority]. There doesn’t appear to be any serious commitment from police or justice officials to deal with these crimes and this in turn creates a culture of impunity where perpetrators of such crimes feel that they can proceed regardless as there is little chance that they will be apprehended or successfully prosecuted.”
Bouillon (25) is well known in France and last year won the prestigious Prix Albert Londres prize — seen as the French Pulitzer Prize — for her magazine feature on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.
Her damning account of her ordeal in Johannesburg, which she at first only emailed to friends, was picked up by the French media this week and appeared in the daily Libération, 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 have also posted her version on Facebook.
The arresting officer “didn’t like the fact that a white girl was dating a black Zimbabwean”, she said in her account.
“He told me straight that he doesn’t like Zimbabweans because they think they are better than us.”
The couple was arrested and held overnight in the Hillbrow police station cells, before being released on Saturday morning.
Bouillon says the reason she was given for her arrest was the lack of a registration number on her international driver’s licence.
The police officer asked Bouillon for her registration number for foreigners, a number he claimed would be issued at a police station.
Kevin Louis, Bouillon’s lawyer, said he had never heard of foreigners requiring a registration number.
When Bouillon could not produce her “registration number”, she was fined R1 000.
Tendai tried to intervene, but the police officer became angry, saying: “So, you Zimbabwean, you think you know South African law better than me?”
“Now that you are so confident about this, look, I’m gonna take your girlfriend to the police station. She is going to court on Thursday. Meanwhile, she will stay the whole weekend in a cell.”
Bouillon says she was then taken to a police van. Tendai came to check on her and asked the policeman to let her go. The police officer grew angry and tried to handcuff him. Tendai then swore at the officer.
After this, Tendai was apparently wrestled to the ground and pepper sprayed. He also claimed the metro police officer punched him in the face. When Bouillon got out of the van to comfort Tendai, she was also pepper sprayed.
An hour and a half later the pair were driven to the Johannesburg Central Police Station.
Bouillon also alleged that the officer in charge at the Hillbrow police station was drunk.
“You were driving on my roads, built by my taxes,” Bouillon quoted him as saying.
Metro police spokesperson Superintendent Wayne Minaar said all the allegations were being investigated.
“Our officers are trained to be professional. We can’t allow police brutality,” he said.