I had been lucky with the South African police, it must be said – my first encounter was at 3 one morning, I had just ordered a whisky at Bara G when I realised how late it was, downed it, said my goodbyes and hurried out for the 20 km drive home. Of course I had the motorway to myself and amused myself seeing how long I could take a straight line across the curving lanes of the M1, crossing and recrossing lanes until – whoops – blue light. Knowing full well I reeked of whisky I cranked the window open a bare centimetre; the policeman asked if I was aware one of my front lights wasn’t working properly. He made me do alternate indicators, and then step on my brakes. Ah, he said, one of my brake lights wasn’t working. I was astonished. I was indignant. I sprang from the car and, keeping my shoulder against the car so I wouldn’t stagger and betray myself, I joined him at the back. Ooh, I said owlishly, neither of them is working! Very nicely he told me to drive home carefully and sleep it off. (How did he KNOW?) (Yes, that was a very long time ago. Can you imagine, nowadays?)
The second time I was driving through De Deur with a long-awaited letter from my London cousin open against the steering wheel, trying to decipher her scrawl in quick glances from road to letter to road. Oops. Man in blue stepped out rather suddenly (luckily during a road, rather than letter, stage) and stopped me. I dropped the letter hastily and looked innocent. As he walked round the car he reached through the open window and patted my unbelted shoulder. ‘Ek se niks, hoer?’’ (I’m saying nothing) Sheepishly I buckled up and was waved on my way.
Despite the above I really am a careful driver so there was a long period of no encounters at all. Old South Africa – where all cops were white, and spoke Afrikaans – was in the fullness of time replaced by the New South Africa, where cops were recruited from both sexes and all races and English was the general language, although senior officers were still predominantly male and Afrikaans in the early days. Made no difference to law-abiding me, although when my daughter was accused of stealing things in grade school, and simply couldn’t understand why it was okay that people stole her stuff, but not okay when she took something, I did take her to the local police station where a rather embarrassed, very kind black policeman explained the law pertaining to personal property – in English. I was dead impressed.
Then one morning I was on my way to work when the M1 came to a grinding halt. There had obviously been an accident, damn damn, but the 11th Avenue turnoff was oh so slowly approaching and I could cut through the back roads to Sandton – a taxi pulled into the yellow lane and I followed it instantly, two or three other cars following as quickly (1). Damn! Police car parked just before the off-ramp! We all edged our way back into the crawl but I could see a large policeman walking between the lanes. He slapped the taxi’s windscreen, and strode on towards me, slapped my screen, and went on past. What was that about? The traffic crawled past the police car and there was the off-ramp – to get back in the yellow lane and whip up the off ramp was the work of a moment and I started up 11th Avenue, one eye on the time (2). A glance in the rear view mirror, though, showed flashing blue lights. For me? Crap. Just to be sure, I turned onto a side road. The lights followed. Crap, CRAP. I pulled to the side of the road and opened my window, smiling ingratiatingly. The same large policeman marched to my car, leaned in, turned off my ignition and took my keys as he strode back to his car. Say what? Hey! I jumped out and followed as, still completely ignoring me, he started talking on his radio. “What the hell?” I tried to interrupt him, and wagged my finger under his nose for emphasis (3) “you don’t just bloody take someone’s bloody keys, okay?” (4) He turned his back on me and carried on talking and short of pulling him round (which would obviously have been stupid even if he hadn’t been very large, and like all SA police armed) there was nothing I could do but stalk crossly back to lean against my car, have a cigarette, and sulk. Another police car pulled up in minutes and the driver marched up to me, toe to toe, nose to nose (I’m tall, he was quite short) and shouted “we’re sick and fuckin’ tired of you pipple and your racist attitudes, you unnerstand me?”I should say the first one was black and this one was white. Give the first guy his due, he did say hastily, ”she hasn’t been racist.“ The new guy didn’t miss a beat. “We’ve got new powers” he bellowed, “so there’ll be no more taking crep from you pipple who think you can do what you want. You’re unner arrest.”
I wiped spittle from my face with a pained look. “Okay, can I at least have my keys back to lock my car? Or are you just going to drag me off?”(5) The two cops went into a huddle, there was more radio talking, and another wait. A third police car arrived, with two cops, one of them female. She drove my car up to Norwood police station with me in the passenger seat, escorted by a police car in front and one close behind. The cavalcade drew some very startled looks but I was starting to feel uneasy. This was a lot of trouble they were going to, for what? Maybe being cheeky had been a really bad move –
At the station I was allowed one call, so phoned work to say I was at Norwood police station and would be late. Then I was charged:(1) reckless and dangerous driving (2) leaving the scene of an accident (3) assault on a police officer (4) crimen injuria and (5) resisting arrest. I didn’t even know what crimen injuria was (swearing) and very indignant about the assault charge. Turns out, did you know, that threatening someone is assault? Actually touching them is GBH. Or so those berks assured me. By now I was finally really scared, was I really going to be thrown into a cell just for trying to get to work on time? In fact they left me alone in the detectives sitting room and I was standing in the doorway, glumly having another cigarette, when I saw our (Afrikaans, very pregnant) sales director hurrying up the stairs with her (Afrikaans, very pretty) secretary. The company had phoned the police station back to check I was okay (having assumed I was reporting a burglary, or similar) and been told I’d been locked up as a public danger, so Pregnant and Pretty had been sent to the rescue to talk me out on bail. (R500! The Cape Town Strangler was released on R1000 bail!)
My court appearance booked for the next day, and if you think I slept well that night, your nerves are stronger than mine. My mother went with me for moral support and we waited, and waited, and waited, and finally went to the court official to find out when my hearing was to be. “Ag,” she said “we threw thet out. Bluddy rubbish.”
There was a post on Facebook today about the UK police getting new powers, which really opened the floodgates on this twenty five year old memory. Ah, nostalgia….