What is normal in a big, bad world?
I’ve been working late. One night last week I came home from work at 3.15am. It’s the kind of thing that makes my mother worry. And what happened last Tuesday was exactly the kind of thing she imagines when she thinks about big, bad Jo’burg.
I was high on oolong tea and had just parted ways with a colleague who was driving to Midrand. I generally feel safe driving home. My route is quite simple. I start on Jan Smuts Avenue and get onto Jellicoe, then Oxford all the way up to Killarney, then Riviera Road then over all the speed humps on 3rd Avenue in Killarney, left at the circle and on to Houghton Drive. Houghton past St John’s College becomes Joe Slovo Drive and once I’m on Joe Slovo, I’m basically in Yeoville where I live.
There are a lot of robots on Joe Slovo. Even though it was late at night, I did not go through any red ones in a rush to get home. I waited patiently at each of them, enjoying the quiet of silence.
As I continued on the long road, out of seemingly nowhere a metro police car taxi sped right up behind me, started to flash white lights and blue lights and put on a very loud siren. I became scared. My leg started shaking and I pulled over to the side of the road. The vehicle stopped and two policemen came over to my car. I noticed that it was just me and them on the street.
The first policeman came over to my window and greeted me in isiZulu. I asked him why I was being stopped and he stuck his hand in my car and patted me on the back seeing the look of fear in my eyes. While he rubbed my back he said: “Ah, shame sorry. It’s so late, I mean it’s so early. You can go.”
I did not like him touching me with such familiarity but I saw that he was trying to be compassionate. Just as he said that the second policeman came to the window and flashed his flashlight in my eyes. “And what about her licence disc?” he asked
I said: “What about my licence disc?”
“It is expired,” he retorted.
I had not checked my licence disc and did not trust that he was telling me the truth. I remembered the last time three policemen stopped me a few years ago. They told me my back number plate was falling off and when I got out to check it, one of them said: “I was joking. I just wanted to see the shape of your body.”
Anyway, I did not believe the policeman and said: “I don’t think that’s true that my disc is expired.”
He said: “Oh so you’re calling me a liar”?
I said: “Okay fine, write me a ticket.”
“No, no. You say I’m a liar. Get out of the car and come and see the disc for yourself.”
“No please bhuti, it’s really late and I just want to get home. Write me a ticket.”
“Heyi, phuma emotweni and come and see this licence disc.”
I got out of the car and as I came around to the other side of it, a third police officer, a woman, turned up and pointed and big, long black gun right into my face. I didn’t even look at the disc, which had indeed expired. “Sisi please, don’t shoot me. Please,” I beg.
I thought about America and my eyes water. The woman said nothing and kept the gun pointed at me. I looked at the licence disk and walked back to the driver’s door. There was absolute silence punctuated by flashing lights. Nothing further was said.
I closed the door and window and began to drive home. I held the tears back but by the time I turned onto Hendon Street, my breathing changed and I began to cry. All the way home. Up four flights of stairs. Into my bedroom. Into the bath. And finally into my bed.
I felt a combination compassion and guilt. Compassion for myself for being frightened and intimidated. I was saddened because the work that I was doing just an hour before is about this exact thing — the distance between our humanity and the things we do. The scarcity of uBuntu in how we encounter and experience each other. I felt compassion for the fact that they are cops in Johannesburg and, to them, this is a normal way to treat another human. I thought about that as I walked up the stairs to my apartment.
The guilt came from the fact that I was not physically brutalised.
I thought about all the people in this country who have been brutalised by the police, now and in history. I thought about people who have been shot and people who have been physically violated and thought: “Hey you are home. You are lucky.”
But this is not apartheid. Why is this okay?