Go home and make new lies

Here’s some follow up to last week’s Fucker Stole My Camera post. It’s a sorry story, involving a lot of very frustrating telephone calls. Lucky for you, dear reader, I made notes on every one, and wrote a transcript of a long exchange at a police station. I was wondering how to present this, but the direct transcripts themselves do ample justice to this tale of constabulary absurdism.

It began on Thursday, after I’d got the camera back, with a call to the Independent Complaints Directorate, the place that I’d been pointed to as a reasonable place to lodge a protest at having it swiped by the police in the first place. System Cele, the young woman who had been roughed up and her teeth knocked out (before she was interrogated, it turns out, not afterwards as reported last week) was ready to lodge a protest too. So, we were ready to go.

Me: Hello? Independent Complaints Directorate?
ICD: Yes.
Me: I’d like to make a complaint about an assault and a theft.
ICD: Where are you?
Me: Durban.
ICD: Can you phone the Durban ICD. Thank you. [Click]

Me: Hello? Independent Complaints Directorate?
ICD: Yes?
Me: What’s the number for the ICD in Durban?
ICD: 031 310 1300. [Click]

Me: Hello? Is that the Independent Complaints Directorate in Durban?
ICD-Durban: Yeees. Shut up! I’m on the phone. Sorry, yes.
Me: Ah yes, I was hoping to be able to report a case of theft and assault by the police. You see what happened is…
ICD-Durban: Sorry, you can’t report it here.
Me: This is the Independent Complaints Directorate, isn’t it?
ICD-Durban: Yes, Shut UP, can’t you see I’m on the phone?
ME: So I’d like to report a complaint.
ICD-Durban: No, you see, you have to report it to a police station.
Me: I have a complaint against the police, and I have to report it at a police station?
ICD-Durban: Yes.
Me: But isn’t that something of a conflict of interest?
ICD-Durban: Well, you don’t have to report it at the same police station. It can be any police station. We just need a case number.
Me: You can’t investigate unless I have a case number?
ICD-Durban: No.
Me: And the only way to get a case number is to go to the people who I’m laying the complaint against.
ICD-Durban: Yes.
Me: [Click]

So, System Cele and I bravely head off into the night, and turn up at Umbilo Road police station, me with pictures of Glen Nayager,

System with a picture of the guy who knocked her teeth out.

We agree that I’ll go first, so that System can see what the process is all about. We’re both a little nervous about it, but System has much more at stake than I. So. Me first.

Me: Hello there. I’d like to report a theft and an assault
Sergeant Zondi: Fill these out. [Foolishly, I supply name, address and passport details.] Now, what happened? [opens up case file]
Me: Well, I had my camera taken, against my will, by a man with a gun.
S.Z.: When did this happen?
Me: Monday.
S.Z.: Why didn’t you report it sooner?
Me: Because I was waiting to get it back.
S.Z.: What do you mean?
Me: It was in police custody. The man who took it was Glen Nayager.
S.Z.: So he took your camera?
Me: Yes.
S.Z.: [Puts pen down.] There’s no case here.
Me: What I would like to do is report this and get a case number. If you don’t want to do this, tell me, and I’ll make note of this, Sergeant Zondi [pull self up to full height while sat on bench, and puff chest out.]
S.Z: Wait here. [picks up papers and walks, harried, into an office]

Enter Captain Rhynes, a thirtysomething station captain who looks strikingly, and I mean almost exactly, like a schoolfriend from England who is now working in Bagdad for the Iraqi government’s WTO accession. Both of them are as sharp as knives, and it seems Captain Rhynes shares with my WTO friend a certain dissatisfaction with her working environment. It turns out Rhynes is leaving the force in two weeks time to become a life skills instructor at a private girls school. Annyway, the conversation, somewhat edited, ran like this:

Captain Rhynes: Hello there, I’m Captain Rhynes, now how can I help?
[the situation is explained].
Captain Rhynes again: Now this doesn’t look like a case of theft to me.
Me: Why not?
Captain Rhynes: Because there wasn’t the intent to deprive anyone of their property.
Me: But, um, he forced me to give him the camera.
CR: Yes but he’s a police officer. He has a duty to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Now I don’t know what you were doing with the camera, but theft involves the intent to permanently deprive someone of their property.
Me: But he didn’t ask for my name or address. How could he get it back to me? It certainly felt like he was taking it for keeps, and there wasn’t a reason to think otherwise. Why else would he have taken it?
CR: But he gave you his name and address?
Me: He said “Nayager”. I had to ask other people who he was and where to find him. And the only reason people knew is because he’s got a reputation.
CR: Well, I don’t know who he is, and if he’s done something wrong, you can report it to the ICD.
Me: But the ICD want a case number or they can’t investigate.
CR: I’m sure you’ve done your homework, but why don’t you do your homework, and then go to the ICD. They’re on the sixth floor of Durban Central police station.
Me: Okay. And they’ll process the enquiry without a case number?
CR: But this wasn’t a case of theft. When you went to the evidence room to get it back, what did it say on the SAP 13 form? What reason did they give you for taking the camera?
Me: None at all. That’s the reason I want to file a complaint with the ICD.
CR: Well why not get the SAP 13 form and see what it says?
Me: Because I’m not the ICD. I can’t just go into a police station where I’ve laid a complaint and ask them to hand over the documents.
CR: Well there are sometimes reasons why police people want to stop the media from taking pictures. Remember when Princess Diana died? Well, the police needed to stop photographers from entering the scene. It was gruesome, remember. Now I don’t know what you were doing..
Me: I was standing at the side of the road taking a picture of Superintendent Nayager arresting someone.
CR: That may be the case, but you know, we don’t know who’s who in the zoo.. You should go to the ICD.

The conversation continues, with more circular logic than a Marx brothers skit. At some point, I give up, and ask another question, on System’s behalf. How easy would it be to file an assault charge? Impossible, it turns out, because if the police are trying to keep the peace, they’re well within their rights to knock you over the back of the head as you’re running away from them, even if you’ve done nothing wrong and they’ve no reason to suspect you have.

We leave the police station annoyed and humiliated. And although we’ve written to the ICD and the Public Protector, we’re almost certain nothing will come of it. The ICD will automatically put this in its low priority folder because, in the words of a prominent South African counsel, “it doesn’t involve death, maiming, or someone senior from the ANC.” And the Public Protector, Lawrence Mushwana, will surely not trouble himself with this trifling issue because he’s busy covering the government’s arse over the recent Oilgate scandal, among many other incidents in which government officials’ behaviour has been so egregious, it has required an independent body to condone it.

But we felt we needed to do it, even if our little acts of protest are policed, channelled, received, scrunched up into little balls and used as kindling. I’m certainly not holding out any hope that Nayager will feel any compunction to behave any better in future protests. He threatened another journalist, Carvin Goldstone, at the same protest, into not printing photographs of the protest “or he’d come get him”. Incidentally, Carvin was able to get a case number for being talked to roughly by Nayager, while System couldn’t get one for losing her teeth, and I couldn’t get one even with demonstrable proof that he’d taken the bloody camera. Props to Carvin and The Mercury for standing by him. But you’ve got to wonder about how arbitrary this all is, and how much more frequent are abuses of power. At another protest last week in Petermaritzburg, an activist was cornered by the police, prevented from taking photos, and made to delete the pictures off the camera in front of the officer caught on (digital) film.

An article today by Richard Pithouse in the Mercury will certainly raise the stakes far more than a direct complaint will. And the increasing international attention that the Abahlali basemjondolo (shackdwellers) movement is generating might give the municipal authorities – the Mayor and City Manager in particular – sleepless nights. One can only hope the insomnia is contagious.

The freedom of expression issue, and the crackdown on dissent, these are tremendously important battles. But this isn’t the first time System has been through the government humiliation machine. She’s used to it not from the behaviours and actions that we dignify with the name ‘activism’, but from those which are routinely dismissed as ‘everyday life’. The pathologies that are revealed by protest and dissent are endemic. Disrespect for the poor is a standard feature of the government bureaucracy. For instance; System has four children. She receives child support for three. “Nobody believes I have four children. Two live with me, two with their father. But when I go to the office to tell them to increase the benefit, they tell me “Go home and make new lies.” I have the birth certificates to prove they’re my children, but the government won’t believe me. I don’t know what to do.”

Freedom of expression is desperately important. But people express themselves everyday. The problem is making the government listen.