Joburg cops’ foreign bonuses

2014-01-05 14:00

“What was he doing in a taxi anyway?” is the first question a Hillbrow cop friend?–?who wishes to remain anonymous?–?asks when I raise the near-arrest of Tumelo Mboweni.

In Hillbrow, the cops racially profile suspects all the time because most of the people living there are foreigners, mostly Zimbabwean and Nigerian.

Xenophobic policing

But is racial profiling a result of xenophobia or is it driven by attempts to secure bribes?

According to the cop, it’s a bit of both, but is far more complex than that.

“There is plenty of xenophobia in the police. It’s institutional, just like in broader society,” the officer says.

“Zimbabweans, we call them all Kalanga. In Zimbabwe, the Kalanga people are treated a bit like second-class citizens, the way we treat Shangaans here.”

At the station, all Zimbabweans are called “Kalanga, second-class, stupid”.

The cop says that latent xenophobia is fuelled by jealousy over money, fancy cars and flat screen TVs.

“Take a Zimbabwean guy living in Hillbrow in an apartment with a flat screen TV and nice clothes.

He works as a waiter at a restaurant in Sandton and he’s paying R4?000 rent.

“Some police officers have extended families who live in shacks. When they look at the Zimbabwean guy, he’s doing better than us and he’s probably not even legal. The assumption is that he’s making his money from crime.”

The cop points out the Cameroonians in their fancy cars.

In Hillbrow, there’s a street with a row of internet cafés, some of them private.

The men arrive here in their splendid outfits in the morning and get to work defrauding people on the internet using the 419 scams the Nigerians made fashionable.

The latest one is that Mandela left you millions in his will and your bank details are needed to deposit the money.

“The Cameroonians and the Nigerians laugh when you ask if they will commit the fraud at home.

“They say: ‘No way, we’d be locked away for years.’ Here, they know they can get away with crime. It’s the system more than just the cops.”

Racial profiling

“It’s not just a police thing. It’s a South African thing, our social crap about darker skins. That cop probably has colleagues at his station with darker skin than the Mboweni guy.”

It’s true, the cop says, that colleagues would never stop a white person and ask for their papers.

“In Hillbrow, there are plenty of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who need the same papers but never get stopped.”

Is it because of the perception that they create jobs? “No, the police are not that sophisticated. It’s the skin colour. They assume their papers are in order.”

In Hillbrow, it’s not skin tone that is used to identify a foreign national. “Hell, I mean there are people from the DRC who are yellow.

“Here, we’ll judge more on accent and physical body than skin colour. In Sandton, they are more likely to judge on skin colour.”

When it comes to accents, people from Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland are seldom asked for papers because they speak a local language. “The Zimbabweans, their Ndebele is different to ours, it’s more like Zulu. So they speak Zulu, but with an accent.”

Systematic bribes

So does the profiling happen in order to solicit bribes?

I watch an unmarked police car pull up to a Nigerian block and hoot twice.

Within seconds, R100 is passed through the window.

On a different day, I watch at a Hillbrow park how, come lunchtime, police cars arrive and stop next to drug dealers?–?R50 is instantly passed over.

The money covers a KFC Streetwise 2 with pap and a Coke, and even leaves some change.

“Sure, when some police officers see a Nigerian, they see an ATM, but it goes deeper than that,” says the cop.

“The assumption is that you’ll always have something on them –?either their papers have expired or they haven’t got any, or whatever. The downside is that some of them simply don’t have money.”

The cop questions whether bribery is even the right word.

“With people from west Africa, it’s just systematic corruption. It’s how it’s done at home. You give money to people in authority to get things done. You just approach them and the wallet comes out. They maybe didn’t even do anything wrong.

“For the local police, this has become an irresistible way of life.”

Paying in the traffic

“Traffic police, that’s a whole other level,” says the cop. Take taxi drivers.

“They probably put aside about R100 a day because every time they’re pulled over, they’ll pass R20 out the window. Plenty of them don’t have licences.

“In the east of Joburg, there are now mostly Zimbabwean drivers and most don’t have licences or even papers.”

The system makes it worse.

“It’s hard enough for South Africans to get papers and licences out of the traffic department and Home Affairs?– even South Africans pay bribes just to get their stuff sorted.

“Now imagine what that process is like if you’re a foreign national,” says the cop.

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