The people versus the captured police

Not even the promise of uninterrupted electricity could guarantee crime-free partying for the more than 60 00 Beyoncé fans who braved hours to see her and a legion of foreign and local artists perform at the Global Citizen Festival in Soweto last Sunday.

Revellers walked out to bedlam as muggers swooped on them, threatening, beating and even stabbing festivalgoers for cellphones and other valuables.

Panic was exacerbated by ineffectual cellphone signal and malfunctioning e-hailing apps. Those walking the 1.4km to the Sasol garage in Ormonde View to get better reception and positions became soft targets. Uber surged its prices, and traffic jams at the stadium exit routes made it impossible for drivers to meet clients.

After a night of brief, puzzling curtain raisers and processions of dignitaries pledging to end poverty, the ultimate attention would go to what Ntsiki Mazwai controversially called the wrath of the poor making scapegoats of ticketholders who had partied to their exclusion.

The award for shooting from the hip, though, would go to the South African Police Service. Minister Bheki Cele went as far as to call the event “well policed”, despite the brazenness of the muggers. It was the Johannesburg metropolitan police department that racked up the initial arrest tally of seven, thanks to their presence as traffic controllers at the scene.

The police, stinging from being labelled the loophole that enabled crime, held fast to their view that the victims should open cases before fuelling hysteria on social media.

Gung-ho about security checks on the way in, the police had hit the snooze button for the exit. In an effort to defend their dereliction of duty, or at least inadequate attention to detail, police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said that on the day after the event that police were only aware of one mugging incident, for which the suspect had been arrested. This is despite numerous witnesses saying on social media accounts they had witnessed multiple muggings, with one counting up to 17 incidents.

The office of the executive mayor said the national joint operational and intelligence structure was responsible for the overall planning, under the command of the SAPS, which included the presidential protection service, given the number of heads of state present.

Although Naidoo spoke about a policing system of concentric rings, which he says worked perfectly at the World Cup in 2010, it seems that in the rush to protect heads of state, nobody spared a thought for the thousands leaving the venue on foot.

Unpredictable as the events that unfolded were, they do raise questions about the character of our police and where they align themselves. “The president stayed until the end,” said Cele, as justification for his statement about the festival being well policed. The people were not citizens with anxieties relating to crime at the moment but a mass of case files he had yet to peruse. “If people say something happened after that, there is one thing to inform police about that and that is a case number.”

Just in case you missed the events of this year, the minister of bluster is back again. But instead of itchy trigger fingers, this time he and his crew are more interested in blending in with high society, nibbling on finger snacks and saying, “if we weren’t around to see it, it didn’t happen”.

The entire notion of the global citizen falls away if one adopts such a philosophy.

Conspicuous by their absence outside it, the police seemed to encase citizenship within the walls of the stadium.

It was also interesting that the only descriptor mayor “Hairman” Mashaba’s metro police could toss about for the identity of the seven muggers who were apprehended was that they were “foreign nationals”. When better to stress differences than in a time of heightened panic?

And in a case of inexplicable amnesia, the police seemed to have forgotten that people only report stolen cellphones for insurance purposes, as opposed to a belief that the cases will be solved.

So although it was good to imagine that poverty emerged from the ether and that we would be able to eradicate it by flinging money within the very same frameworks that have perpetuated it ad infinitum, there is something to be said about the blindsiding comeuppance of that idea.

The muggings represent not only the desperate levels of crime in South Africa — always rubbing up against the false insulation offered by privilege — but also the criminal way in which police betray citizens daily.

Among all the statements of outrage over the concert’s end, Sindiso Nyoni reposted his 2012 artwork Protect and Serve, pointing to patterns of state behaviour as opposed to seeking answers from the state. Created not quite a day after the Marikana massacre, its police figure is visible all right, but not exactly accountable to the citizens.

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These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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