Protect us, please

2009-11-20 11:54

I CRIED when I saw the picture of a toddler killed by the police two weeks ago. I don’t know him or his parents, but I wondered what difference it made to them whether their child was killed by criminals or police officers.

This was a little boy who brought laughter to his parents’ faces even when they did not ­necessarily want to laugh at his antics. Atlegang Aphane was a ­little boy whose father wanted to play many more games with him. His mother cradled him protectively as he kept her up at night. This is part of the experience of love. We had this effect on our ­parents and the children we love have it on us.

As I pondered all of this, I wondered how long the police heads took to think about how they would feel if their children were unsafe from the very people who were supposed to protect them.

No matter what he did, no three-year-old can look that menacing. There are conflicting stories about a parked car, a child sitting inside it with an uncle, the pipe that little Atlegang may or may not have had in his hand. But no matter what the little boy held in his hand, he must have looked like a little boy to the same eyes that were so attentive to notice that he was holding something. Is a three-year-old the face of violent crime?

I am sure that some police officers, like many other people, buy guns as toys for their children to play with. Boys and girls all over the country should throw away those toy guns lest they are mistaken for violent criminals. Being gun-free will not render them safe.

Atlegang did not have a gun when he was killed. Even if there is a real bomb in its hand, a three-year-old should not die at the hands of the police. There is no justification for what happened.

Newspapers say he did not have a pipe in his hand. But he is dead nonetheless. Somebody needs to take responsibility for this, and not just the two police officers on whose hands his blood is. It will not bring Atlegang back or heal his family’s pain, but it will be a world apart from the insensitivity of justifying a child’s death with talk of innocents caught in the crossfire. This child was not hit by a stray bullet between shooting grown men. What kind of people are we that can accept such a thing as the trivialisation of human life as normal?

A friend of mine remarked this week that she was no longer sure whom to fear more: criminals or the police. She and I have had countless conversations about crime over the years. We have not always agreed on its causes and whether the government is doing enough to address this. She was frequently infuriated by what she called Thabo Mbeki’s side-stepping of the issue, as was I. Now the media reports that Jacob Zuma speaks about how “our” crime is different from that experienced in other countries, and I honestly don’t know what this means.

I suppose that if our crime is more violent then our police officers should also be more violent and less cautious. But how are we as ordinary people supposed to know the difference in the ­absence of consideration for the fact that all lives matter, especially those of us who are not shooting at the police?

Yes, I know that there are outstanding men and women in the police force, and many have lost their lives to violent criminals. I doubt that they or their families feel recognised in the glossing over of the unnecessary death of unarmed children and adults. The yearning for more reliable and visible policing is one of the few calls that unite South Africans across the political landscape. When we hope for safety we imagine that we can tell those we can trust apart from those we dare not.

A few weeks ago, in this paper, Mathatha Tsedu wrote movingly to the parents of journalist Shadi Rapitso about the horror of losing a child – and to a senseless, violent act. We cannot accept that the ­unnecessary loss of life is unavoidable. Giving hope to people who live in this country cannot mean that we have to first fear the police when we think about our own and our families’ safety.

Gqola is associate professor at Wits University’s School of ­Literature and Language Studies

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