Tuesday, June 2, 2020

By all means, don’t speak English during tense police stops

To be clear, the advice the headline asserts is directed at Batswana who speak Setswana and would most likely have earlier used it before ill-fated code-switching. The novel coronavirus lockdown that Botswana has to live under for the next 28 days is itself novel but the joint police-army patrols that will be used to enforce it are certainly not. Over the years, the experience of these patrols have yielded certain insights that can be publicly stated authoritatively. Firstly, patrols of this nature bring out the worst in those conducting them, especially soldiers who have neither training nor experience of policing civilians.

Much of SADC is in lockdown and last week when South Africa’s went into its own, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the lockdown was “not a stop-and-donner” – meaning it was not an opportunity for security forces to stop and beat people up – “donner” in Afrikaans. He should know. The man who is now South Africa’s president started his political career as a trade unionist and knows all too well how overly self-indulgent security forces can be in the process of enforcing law and order. Online there is a picture that, must have been taken in apartheid South Africa of the 1980s, that shows Ramaphosa running away from riot police during a protest march.When they have also had to patrol the streets, Botswana’s security forces have demonstrated outsized appetite for senseless and indulgent violence against members of the public that takes different forms. In some instances, they respond to a simple argument in which their lives are not threatened by theatrically uncocking their guns. Late scribe Rampholo Molefhe once wrote in his about a late-night encounter he had with much younger police officers out on patrol.

Normal Botswana never has curfews and this encounter happened during a normal-Botswana period. The officers asked him where he was from at a late hour (an insult in Setswana culture given the age difference between the two parties) and he immediately remonstrated with them by making a point about this cultural norm. From Rampholo’s description, this incident doesn’t seem to have escalated farther than this but there are those that have.One was of a man who left Notwane Bar in Extension 12 late at night carrying a plastic bagful of beer cans. He was walking to his flat near News Café in Village when a Special Support Group (SSG) patrol van came upon him. (A paramilitary wing of the Botswana Police Service, SSG was formed in the early 1980s and during an unguarded moment he would later regret, one ruling-party leader boasted that it was meant to beat up members of the opposition when they misbehaved.) With some of the van’s armed occupants disembarking, the man, himself a former police officer and familiar with the antics of night-time policing, had to answer far too many questions from officers speaking over each other: Where are you going? What are you doing in the streets late at night?

What do you have in your plastic bag? He calmly explained that he was going home, pointing to the block of flats less than 30 metres away and indicating the location of his flat. He opened the plastic bag to show that he was not carrying anything illegal.Where it would have been easy to walk the man to the flat he claimed was his, the officers instead forced him into the van which was then driven at high speed halfway across town to the Airport Junction area. There they kicked him out, telling him that he should walk back to the flat he said was his – which was actually what he did. Anything could have happened to him courtesy of people who are supposed to protect members of the public.Botswana’s lockdown has been designed in such manner as to precipitate situations that will put some members of the public on a collision course with joint patrol teams. Households will certainly run out of food and other supplies in no time and stray too far from their locale in an effort to replenish them. There is possibility that such “straying” will meet the disapproval of patrol teams.

In the United States, black parents have to tell their male children to not argue with police officers (especially white ones) because, as has happened in many cases, the latter can just murder them. Less the murder, a variation of that problem manifests itself here at home in the form of one too many police officers reading classist malice into the use of English by members of the public. In the early days of the police service, some of the boys who didn’t do well in school ended up becoming police officers. Over the years a profusion of people whose academic journey was cut short in the said manner came to dominate the police force. The result was that certain people came to think a particular way about the service and its members. The reality though is that today’s force has more than its fair share of A students who hold all kinds of advanced degrees. The other reality is that there are still officers who are likelier to struggle with English in a society that fetishises proficiency in the language.On account of their colonial past and having failed to discern how colonialism works, some Batswana use English not just as a tool of communication, but also as an emotional emblem of socio-economic standing – and verbal bludgeon.

They basically use English to intimidate others. The police resent being the targets of such elitist use of English and historically have been known to fight back by (ab)using their own power. This mostly happens in situations where there is an argument in which sustained use of English is purposefully designed to make the playing uneven in the said manner. It is common knowledge that in such situations, some police officers retaliate by being overly officious and downright impossible. Even a few words or phrases of English might trigger such response. By all means, if you are Motswana don’t talk back to the police in English during tense stops.There is another aberration for which we are unable to offer advice for for reasons that will become apparent. The Botswana Guardian has published the story of Dumisani Matiha, a rock musician from North East who complained that Gaborone officers routinely stopped and questioned him in the streets on a regular basis. Assuming he was a foreigner, they would ask him to produce a passport.

Like most Batswana from the north, Matiha is dark-skinned and to this day, police officers profile people (mostly pedestrians) on the basis of skin complexion. Dark-skinned Batswana are on the receiving end of this practice.  The coronavirus patrols are also meant to identify, detain and repatriate illegal aliens who truth be told, are mostly identified on the basis of skin complexion. Police officers and immigration officials don’t stop light-skinned blacks and whites in the streets and ask them to produce a passport.  Experience says that some dark-skinned Batswana out in the streets during this lockdown, particularly poor ones, will be asked for their passports or national identity cards. The law doesn’t require anyone to carry the latter but that hasn’t stopped the police from asking for them.

As SADC countries enforce national lockdowns, a human rights advocacy group called the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa has expressed grave concern about reports of the use of violence and excessive force by law enforcement and military agencies deployed to enforce lockdowns.“Clear rules of engagement that are in compliance with the constitution and the law must be established for the police and military. Perpetrators of violence must be withdrawn and punished. National frameworks for monitoring compliance with constitutional and human rights standards during the lockdown must be established. We call on all States to respect fundamental rights of their citizens even as they tackle the COVID-19 crisis,” OSISA says in a statement. 

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