Georgina Guedes

Officer, it was only 'hardly red'

2014-03-13 10:15

Georgina Guedes

One of the jokes common among South Africans commenting about the lawless state in which we live is that in our country there are degrees of red for a traffic light: hardly red, just red or very red.

I am always astonished when I push through on hardly red to see that another two or three cars will follow through behind me.

And of course, hypocrite that I am, I am furious when I am prevented from turning right across oncoming traffic by cars shooting through at hardly, then just and then very red (although, in my defence, I always stop on orange if there is a car waiting to turn).

Stopped by the cops

The reason for this little history of my driving habits is that yesterday, I was stopped by the traffic police near Hyde Park Corner. There was a road block, and when I was asked to stop, it didn’t even occur to me that I’d gone through a "hardly red" light.

Instead, I was doing the classic tally of how much money I had in my wallet, sure I was about to be rolled for a bribe, then reminding myself that I have made the decision not to pay bribes as part of my own personal push back against corruption.

The cop showed me where to park, checked my licence disk, and asked for my driver’s licence. I produced it. Then he asked me, "Why did you go through that red light?"

My mind stuttered. Even when prompted by an officer of the law to recall such a transgression, I had trouble doing so. Then, I was able to remember that I accelerated as the lights changed, so yes, I suppose I had gone through a red light, but it was "hardly" red. (In all my wisdom, I saw fit not to proffer this as an excuse.)

"Why are you in such a hurry?" he asked.

"I have a meeting," I told him.

"When?"

"Half past," I must confess I lied. I was very early for my meeting, but didn't think that evidence of random recklessness was going to help my case.

"Where?"

"Illovo."

"Slow down," he said. "You’re almost there. And now this is going to cost you R500."

"Yes," I said glumly. "I’m really sorry."

"And it’s not the R500 that’s the point," he went on. "It’s the danger you’re posing to yourself and others."

This was all starting to get a bit surreal. I felt like I was in some cheesy US television show where the cops are good, the robbers are bad and the public is grateful for police intervention.

"Yes, I know," I said. "I’m really sorry."

He looked me straight in the eyes. "I’m going to let you off this time, but please drive more carefully in future."

Gobsmacked, tearful, I went on my way.

How things should be

My husband tells a story about when he was living in the UK and was pulled over by a police officer for not coming to a complete stop at a stop street. The policeman explained to him what he’d done, instructed him not to do it again and sent him on his way.

"This," my husband says, "should be the point of traffic policing. It’s not to make up fine quotas or to harass the public; it’s to prevent people from breaking the law, but ultimately to be on their side."

When I got home and told him about my experience, he pointed out that the very fact that I was stunned to have had such an encounter speaks volumes about the actual quality of policing in South Africa.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. This week alone we’ve learnt that some of the Marikana strikers were shot by police with their hands tied, and seen that gruesome video of police brutality against an unarmed, unresisting man in Cape Town.

So the purpose of this column is not to use one anecdote as a counter to all the evidence out there of a police force that is consumed by rot, but to remind South Africans that even in the midst of all that corruption and violence and powermongering, there remain a few good men.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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