‘Where were the police?’

2018-01-30 13:30
A protester armed with a steel pipe hangs out of a taxi in the CBD on Thursday.

A protester armed with a steel pipe hangs out of a taxi in the CBD on Thursday. (Supplied)

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WATCH: Pietermaritzburg shop looted during taxi strike

2018-01-26 16:24

CCTV cameras captured the moment Just Take Away in Thomas Street, Pietermaritzburg, was looted during a strike by minibus taxi drivers on Thursday. Watch. WATCH

With the city still reeling from last Thursday’s crippling taxi strike, police sources have said that the SAPS “were caught with their pants down” and did not respond “efficiently”.

Pietermaritzburg and its residents were held hostage last Thursday when protesting taxi conductors and operators blockaded the city with burning tyres and rubbish, looting shops and dragging innocent passengers from taxis.

Following Thursday’s crippling strike, the question of police readiness and reliable crime intelligence has been raised on social media by angry residents who suffered a day of disruptions and intimidation.

Police members on Monday expressed their frustrations at not being allowed to act to clear the roads and help disperse the taxi operators.

Police sources, who could not be named, said that prior to the protest, they had no information from crime intelligence about Thursday’s strike.

The sources also said they had been instructed by the Public Order Police (POP) unit not to disperse the crowds of rowdy strikers, as it was the POP unit’s job.

They also alleged that the POP unit only arrived in the early afternoon on Thursday, and were deployed outside the City Hall where the Msunduzi mayor, Themba Njilo, met with hordes of angry protesters.

The sources alleged that when requests were made that the POP unit assist in other areas in Pietermaritzburg to disperse violent protesters, they were told that the unit was busy at the City Hall and could not be deployed elsewhere.

One senior police source, who could not be named, said the situation “definitely could have been handled better”.

“I don’t know what happened with crime intelligence,” said the source.

“Whatever happened, it does not justify Thursday’s strike.

“The police were delayed in responding. I don’t know if crime intelligence knew about the strike or its intensity, however, if measures had been taken at the very start of the strike, it could have been contained right away.

“The police were caught with their pants down and then did not respond efficiently.”

Another police source, who also could not be named, said they had “heard nothing from crime intelligence” regarding the taxi strike before or after it engulfed the city last week.

“We were told not to act as only the POP unit can act during strikes.

“We were told we could observe, but we were unable to disperse crowds.

“We told the POP unit we needed help and were told the vehicles were with the mayor at the City Hall. The mayor has his own bodyguards. Why does he need the POP unit?

“We had to just sit back and wait and if the POP unit told us they did not want us there, then we had to leave,” said the source.

He added that the police had called the fire department several times to report burning tyres and a car, but were told by the fire department they were unable to attend the call.

Police 'were instructed not to act'

A Source at the fire department said last week that all firefighters had been instructed to stay put at the station unless escorted by police.

Msunduzi municipal spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said last week the fires in the CBD were not reported to the department until it was too late.

Another police source said there had been no crime intelligence on the strike. “What crime intelligence?” he said, laughing.

The source added that police had tried their best to contain the strike but were instructed not to act as it was a job for the POP unit. “It would have been done within the first hour if we had been allowed to act,” said the source. “We all did the same course as the POP unit, so why couldn’t we help?”

The protesters shut down every taxi rank in the city, leaving countless commuters stranded. After a morning of mayhem on the city’s streets, at around midday the POP unit began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd in front of the City Hall, after protesters had blockaded the road with taxis.

The demonstrators threatened a full shutdown of the city if Msunduzi does not respond within seven days to a full list of demands handed to Njilo.

The demands, according to taxi boss Norman Mkhize who spoke to The Witness last week, are that Msunduzi clear all fines accumulated by taxi drivers.

He claimed City traffic officers were targeting them.

He said they were unhappy with the filthy condition of the taxi ranks. They also demanded the municipality build taxi stops with shelters for passengers.

Responding to media queries on the role of the POP unit and the alleged lack of crime intelligence, KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala said “enough manpower was deployed in the Pietermaritzburg area”.

“The allegations that the members responded late or were scarce are not true.

“We are appealing to community members to exercise their right to protest peacefully. We strongly condemned the violent protest that led to the state vehicles being burnt.”

The response was the same as the response sent by the provincial police to Weekend Witness on Friday.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  taxi strike

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