/ 4 May 2010

Blue-light blunders

The government’s VIP protection unit, also known as the the blue-light brigade, has become notorious for its bullying tactics on South Africa’s roads.

The latest incident — involving a Cape Town businessman and his foreign guests led to a spat between the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and the government. In addition, criminals have also taken to flagging down unsuspecting motorists using flashing blue lights. Here are a number of incidents:

A Madam and Eve cartoon from November 2008 spoofing the behaviour of the blue lights brigade.

The tourist and the ‘VIP van’
Cape Town businessman Raymond Wright accused a “Zuma VIP van” of forcing him to pull over while he was driving to the airport on April 24. Three gun-wielding guards threatened one of his guests, a German investor, for taking pictures of the speeding cars on his iPhone.

Zizi Kodwa, special advisor to President Jacob Zuma on communication, called Wright a lair when the fiasco landed in the media, thanks to a strongly-worded statement by the DA.

The DA took the opportunity to draw attention to the VIP calvacades and demanded that Kodwa explain his “threatening phone calls to the blue-light victim”.

Kodwa told theMail & Guardian recently that Wright’s allegations were false since “the president was not in the Western Cape on Saturday”, the day of the alleged harassment.

The would-be blue lighters
In April, two Pretoria police officers, alleged to have been in cahoots with a blue-light gang, appeared in court on charges of aiding and abetting criminals.

The two officers, one of whom one was a captain, were caught after their alleged accomplices were arrested during a routine stop-and-search police operation on Hans Strydom Road in Pretoria.

The criminals were found in possession of a stolen car that had been fitted with a police siren and blue lights.

After their arrest, they led the police to a house where two police officers were found with a rifle, pistols, number plates, police uniforms and grenades.

The suspects have been remanded in custody for further investigations until their next court appearance on May 5.

In March, a Johannesburg businessman was shot and killed, allegedly by blue-light robbers.

Captain Cynthia Magoai said Peter Granat (54) was killed in Parkwood by robbers using fake blue lights to imitate a police vehicle. His body was found next to his Toyota Land Cruiser.

Granat’s death came in the wake of an email from the Sunninghill Community Association that warned of an “alarming trend” noted by the Sandton police.

The email alert said that “several hijackings in the Sandton, Randburg, Douglasdale and Midrand were being carried out by thugs in unmarked vehicles with blue lights on the dashboard”.

It also said cars such as Audi A4s, VW Golfs and Toyota RunXs were involved in the hijackings and that as many as four robbers at a time carried out the hits.

Policeman shoots tyre
In November 2008, the M&G reported that a policeman had been arrested for shooting at a tyre of a motorist who failed to move into the slower lane of the N3 highway near Pietermaritzburg, causing an accident that left eight people injured.

Police spokesperson Director Phindile Radebe confirmed that the officer had been charged with attempted murder, and that he was part of the VIP protection team tasked with protecting KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) social welfare minister Meshack Radebe.

The policeman, who is believed to have been a passenger in the black VW Golf with tinted windows and flashing blue lights, held the rank of constable. Superintendent Henry Budhram told the South African Press Association that a black Mazda heading towards Durban was being followed by a police collision-unit vehicle when the black Golf with flashing blue lights sped up behind them.

The police vehicle pulled over to allow the Golf to pass, but “at that moment the driver of the Mazda could not pull over as he was passing a truck”.

It is alleged that when the Mazda had passed the truck and pulled over, a passenger in the Golf wound down a window and shot the tyre of the Mazda.

“The driver of the Mazda lost control and his vehicle went into the oncoming traffic, colliding with a bakkie in the north-bound lane,” Budhram said.

Activist action
In 2008, a 52-year-old Pietermaritzburg woman said she was attacked on the N3 near Camperdown.

Jude Ward, a farmer and businesswoman, said she was pushed out of the fast lane of the N3 south-bound highway and was forced to pull over by the driver of a white VW Polo Player with flashing blue lights.

Ward stopped near the Halfway Garage near Camperdown and the two men, who were wearing name tags, got out of their vehicle and manhandled her, claiming she had been hogging the fast lane.

Ward had been driving at 120km/h.

The white Polo Player belonged to the KwaZulu-Natal Transport Department.

She was charged with reckless and negligent driving and failing to follow a traffic officer’s instructions.

Subsequently Ward started a fund named: Ward off Blue-Light Bullies. She said the fund was to assist victims of blue-light bullies who could not afford to take action against the perpetrators.

KZN transport minister defends blue lights
KZN transport minister, Willies Mchunu, defended the unit in the provincial legislature in April, following the incident.

He said allegations of the persistent abuse of power through the use of blue lights by “blue-light bullies” was false and misleading. He said provisions of the Road Traffic Act authorised police officials to exceed general speed limits and to disregard road traffic signs while acting in the execution of their duties. The Act’s definitions, he said, were sufficiently broad to encompass police officers, provincial traffic officers and metro police officers.

“The first point that needs to be made is that nowhere in the authorising legislation does it suggest that in order to disregard speed restrictions or road traffic signs, an emergency situation be in place as a precondition to exercising the authority by police officers,” he was quoted as saying in the Witness.

The National Road Traffic Act of 1996 does not require the existence of an emergency situation before traffic cops and police officers can disregard the laws of the road.

The DA responds
Meanwhile, the DA has called on “the bullying and threatening tactics of the blue-light brigades to stop”.

According to DA spokesperson on police, Dianne Kohler Barnard, the DA in the Western Cape has embarked on a process that will result in legislation that will prevent any politician — from any sphere of government — from using blue-light convoys and sirens in the province, unless there is a genuine emergency.

The party has urged Zuma’s administration to follow its example.