Police law-breaking almost cost two men their lives

05 Mar 2019

Courtesy of police overzealousness, two young men almost died when two Seabelo Express buses collided along the A1 Highway in a freak fatal accident last month.

The men, Mosimane Chakalisa and Buzwani Kwelagano, boarded a Francistown-bound private car in Gaborone at the Tawana hitchhiking spot on a rainy day. This happened way before the two Seabelo Express buses (one Bulawayo-bound leaving at 530 a.m. and the other Francistown-bound leaving at 6 a.m.) reached this stop. At a police roadblock in Dibete, the officer manning the roadblock learnt that the driver had given Chakalisa and Kwelagano a ride and ordered them out of the car with the explanation that “hitchhiking is against the law.”

Chakalisa says that their own explanation that they had to hitch a ride because it was raining (indeed it was and the Met office had put out a warning for that particular day) didn’t suffice. The officer stuck to his explanation that hitchhiking is unlawful. Chakalisa recalls the officer asking them: “What if you get injured in a private car that is not licensed to transport members of the public?” The officer wouldn’t allow the men to hitch a ride in cars that stopped at the roadblock, insisting that they use a public bus. They in turn insisted on using private cars and refused to get on the Bulawayo-bound Seabelo Bus when it passed through. However, they finally gave in and boarded the Francistown-bound Seabelo Express bus. They could not have known that in less than an hour, the bus would become a coffin.

Ahead of them, not too far from the Tropic of Capricorn, the Bulawayo bus broke down and the driver parked it to the side of the side and turned on hazard lights. Somehow that was not adequate warning for the driver of the oncoming Francistown bus which came tearing at a high speed, ploughed into the back of the parked bus and veered off the road into bush towards the railway line. To his credit, the driver was able to control the bus as it knocked down trees as well as the barbed-wire fence separating the highway from pasturage. A few metes off the road, he managed to bring the bus to a controlled if abrupt halt. Had the driver “lost control” as one police officer was quoted as saying in the press, many more people would have died. Save for a minor cut in the face, Chakalisa survived the accident while Kwelagano suffered no injuries. Five people – including a lady conductor, an elderly man and a seven-year old boy – died in the accident. The driver, a Zimbabwean, has been remanded in custody and charged with causing death by reckless driving.

“I almost died because of the police officer who put me on that bus,” Chakalisa says.

There is another point that he can make – he didn’t break the law by hitchhiking; the officer who ordered him out of the car is the one who broke the law. Contrary to what police officers and bus owners believe, the Road Traffic Permits Act doesn’t outlaw hitchhiking. What it outlaws is motorists getting payment from passengers – which the police need proof of. Section 5 of that Act says that except when a motor vehicle has been issued with a passenger transport permit, it shall not be used for hire or reward when conveying any person. Naturally, people who hitchhike pay when they reach their destination but what is unlawful here is not giving someone a lift but demanding payment at the end of the journey. The police are helpless in this case because they actually need to see money changing hands for them to say the law has been broken. For that reason, ordering hitchhikers off a private car is unlawful unless there is proof that they are going to pay or have paid. Granted, this is a loophole in the law but it is one that can’t be closed by doing what the law doesn’t prescribe.

Bus owners themselves, who have no compunction about breaking the law, also misinterpret the provision in question to basically unleash violence against members of the public. This they do by engaging the services of literally battle-scarred young men and deploying them along the routes their buses take. Their duty of these part-time employees is to prevent hitchhikers from boarding lifts. It is unclear what their instructions are but some get physical in the process of discharging such duty. However, they have neither the power nor authority to do that and like the police can’t actually prove that money has changed hands.

Law-breaking by the police also manifests itself in the form of asking people that officers encounter either on public service vehicles or in the streets to produce national identity cards (“Omang” as they are more commonly known). This is also unlawful because there is no provision in the law that requires citizens to carry Omang. However, that doesn’t deter police officers at roadblocks and on foot patrols from routinely demanding these cards from people. As a matter of practice, the officers are wont to punish those who can’t produce identity cards. A Lobatse women says that when she couldn’t produce her Omang upon being asked to do so by an officer who had boarded a bus at a roadblock in the outskirts of the town, she was ordered off the bus. Naturally, her two minor children couldn’t remain behind but after getting off the bus, the police never laid a charge (they couldn’t because she had not broken any law) but instead averted their attention to cars passing through. After an hour, she left of her volition and having spent all the money she had on her, had to walk with her children to the other side of town - Peleng. She would otherwise have had to walk for only five or so minutes because her house is near the bus terminal. It is important to state that she is a poor person because Botswana has a system of policing that brutalises the poor. Identification demands by the police are also problematic because dark-skinned Batswana (never the light-skinned ones and never whites) are the ones who are routinely asked to show identity cards.

In one very tragic respect, thuggish conduct has come to define policing in Botswana, which condition bodes ill for the safety of both the officers themselves and members of the public. While people are required to obey the law, they are also not required by the same law to comply with unlawful demands by the police. Someone refusing to get out of a car they hitch a ride in would not be breaking the law - as would someone else resisting arrest because s/he is not carrying Omang. However, the police officers would interpret that encounter differently and a physical altercation would most likely be the result.