Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The Pigs of Parys
Karma. A word that means chance, fate, destiny, providence, luck, fortune, coincidence or an accident. On a sunny Friday morning in March, as I am about to leave (my car is packed and ready to go since the previous evening), I reach into a cupboard and pick up my camera. My eye catches a dog-eared document and I absent-mindedly pull it out. Half an hour later I am sitting down, still reading it.
I’m reading MINUTES OF A DISCIPLINARY HEARING HELD AGAINST NICK VAN DER LEEK.
Accused of misconduct for publishing an article in the Sunday Independent ‘without permission’ – I defended myself at the time. I’d been accused despite having published literally hundreds of articles over a 14 month period.
While I’m studying the document I notice a few points that have been overlooked, and begin making mental notes. I see at one vital point the HR woman has transcribed something I had said, but the vital word in the sentence - she has written the word ‘tact’ as ‘tapped’, rendering the sentence meaningless. My ears flush with anger. With my ire up, a cloak of negativity slung around my shoulders, and a thin grey veil of gloom pulled over the sunniness of the day, I step into my car, turn the ignition and hit the button that kick starts the infernal roar of the grating garage door .
Even when I hit the M1 (at around 10am) my mind is still stuck in that God damned document. I notice, absently, that I am treating traffic like a computer game – with that disconnected sense of reality. I try to concentrate despite my abstractions and mental distractions and then – close to the Potchefstroom turnoff – I gather speed and order myself to quit this internal monologue.
It’s just gone 11am. Immediately after emerging through the second tollgate (Kroonvaal), a heavy traffic officer steps onto the concrete highway and motions me to pullover. I do, but it’s still a long walk for him to reach me. Inwardly I am cursing.
I nod to him.
“Meneer I see you are driving with the wrong number plates. You need the new Free State number plates with the cheetah on it, not these white ones.”
That’s a new one.
“I live in Gauteng now so I’ve tried to change these plates to Gauteng license plates. I went to the Randburg License Department about a month ago – I took the morning off work to do that – only to find I needed a utility bill-.”
“Meneer I’m going to have to ask you to remove the number plates. You can’t drive with those number plates.”
“Well, I’m trying to explain to you that I’ve attempted to-.”
“Where is your license disk meneer?”
I pull it out of the door’s document holder and hand it to him.
“Meneer this has expired.”
“Yes, I know. Like I said, I went to the License Department to change my number plate and get everything done in one go-.”
“This is serious. You can’t ride with an expired license disk. Is this your vehicle? Can I see your driver’s license?”
I give it to him.
He starts pressing his BIC pen onto thin white and red paper attached to a clipboard.
“Are you listening to what I am saying?”
“Meneer, you may not ride with an expired license disk. Your car is not roadworthy, and you can’t drive with these number plates. Where are you going now?”
“To Bloemfontein. To my girlfriend and for my brother’s birthday. And my car is roadworthy.”
“So you go often to see your girlfriend?”
“Once a month.”
“So why don’t you change your number plates when you are there?”
“I told you; because I live in Gauteng now. And since I pay rent I don’t have a utility bill and my lease agreement is verbal, so I’ve asked for a written document and that’s where I am now…”
“Is it my problem you live in Gauteng?”
“Well are you a human being? Can you understand that I have tried to sort this out and I’ve had some trouble?”
I grimly reflect on my very bad karma. I had pulled out a handful of documents from a stylish blue gift bag that had once contained my birthday present, and stuffed a signed copy of a book for my brother’s birthday. But in doing so I’d removed the pink NOTIFICATION OF CHANGE OF ADDRESS OR PARTICULARS OF PERSON OR ORGANISATION document and the APPLICATION FOR LICENSING OF MOTOR VEHICLE* that has been lying behind the passenger seat since I’d applied on the 20th of January.
As a matter of fact the CERTIFICATE OF MOTOR VEHICLE REGISTRATION is another document in the clutter of paper that I’d fished out the night before. So now I have nothing to prove my visit to Randburg…
“Meneer this license disk has expired for 2 years now.”
…but even if I had it may have done little to improve my karma either way.
“It’s not that bad. It expired at the end of 2007; November 30. It’s now the beginning of 2009. So it’s just over 1 year. And like I said, I-.”
“Meneer, please remove your license plates.”
“Are you writing me a fine? Even though I have been explaining to you…?”
He begins to rehash the last few minutes of our conversation and I say, “Listen – either you listen to my story like a human being, and try to understand, or write me a fine. If you’re going to write the fine just write the fine.”
He walks to the back of the car and I notice a few crisp R100 notes on my front seat which I’d drawn for the toll gates. I cover them up with a jacket, climb out the car and cross the 8 lanes to a large overweight women sitting on the guard rail.
“Excuse me? Is it normal procedure to ask for number plates to be removed?”
“You have the old license plates.”
“I’ve noticed while you have been sitting here that quite a few vehicles have gone by and you’ve sat here and not stopped them. So why was I stopped?”
“He’s using his discretion.”
“But why is he asking me to remove them?”
When I turn to walk back, the man has walked a hundred metres away from my vehicle. He still has my driver’s license and license disk.
“Are you finished with the fine. I’m in a hurry,” I tell him.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“I’d like your name. You already have my name. I’ve given you my driver’s license, and there you have written my name already.” He is not wearing a name tag of any kind.
“Meneer, I will arrest you for not co-operating with me. I will take you to the police station. I asked you to remove your plates.”
“I’m happy to go to the police station to explain my story. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You haven’t given me your name!”
Now I notice all he has in an initial on the fine.
“You want my first name?”
“Okay you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Any- Give me your keys, and get into my car.”
“No, I will follow you. I’m not leaving my car here.”
“Refusing to obey my instructions!” With that he stomps off to his golf and started riffling through two thick binders. I turn my car and park right behind his golf.
“Go through the tollgates,” he says to me.
“After you. I don’t know the way…”
“You are under arrest! Refusing to obey an instruction!”
And he goes off to rifle through his files again.
Fucking ridiculous. This is getting laughable.
I dial 10111 to find out whether any of this is legal. No answer! He continues to fidget and fuss and rummage in the files in the boot of the tjorr and while he is busy I call my girlfriend and ask her to get me the number for the Free State Traffic department. Next thing he gets into his tjorr and drives through the tollgate. He gives the lady an earful, seems to be telling her to tell me that I must go through and pull over. She shakes her head at him and he finally drives through and parks 200 metres up the road. I pull up, pay R38 and park behind him. He is standing beside his car, sunning himself. I see him stuff my driver’s license into his trouser pocket.
I call a guy called Kwekwe who tells me that the officer does have a right to ask me to remove my plates, although he admits this is very unusual. He says I should be given a receipt in exchange.
“He hasn’t offered me a receipt,” I say. “He says I’m under arrest.”
“Just give him your full co-operation. And if he asks you to remove your license plates do so.”
I get out the car. “Well I’m not sure if I can. They’re on good and tight, possibly screwed on and I don’t have…”
While I am talking on the phone I walk to the front of the car and pull at the plate. It yields a little. I pull harder and then it comes off, leaving a pretty gruesome sight. I go to the back and notice the sticker above the number plate – it is to advertise my website: WWW.NICKVANDERLEEK.COM.
He notices my number plates, my license disk and he says he doesn’t know my first name?
Just as I’ve yanked off the second plate a police van pulls up. Two burly policemen climb out in blue overalls. The traffic officer shakes hands and then his lips shake and splutter as he blabbers in Sotho (I presume). I wait patiently until one of the officers finally says: “Why are you not co-operating? He wants to arrest you?”
“What more do you need me to do? I’m parked right behind him, I’ve removed the license plates-.”
More jibberjabber and I finally say: “Can you speak in English please?”
But they ignore me.
“You are under arrest. We are going to the police station. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST!”
“Can I follow behind him in my car?” I ask the officers. They say it’s fine.
It’s a twenty minute drive to Parys from the Kroonvaal Tollgate. I’m closely escorted; a police car in front and behind. When we arrive at the police station I park behind the traffic officer’s tjorr, but they instruct me to drive around and park it inside the police compound. I know what that means: They’re impounding your car.
Inside the police station I’m quietly disturbed by the fact that there are no white police officers.
I’m immediately asked to write down my home and work address on a piece of paper. Then they bring me a piece of paper marked AFFIDAVIT. The officer says I must write on the paper why I have not renewed my license disk.
While writing one of the officers comes up to me, glances at the paper and says, a big satisfied smirk on his face, “Now you are co-operating aren’t you.”
Another one comes up to me and asks why my license disk expired so long ago.
I explain to the officers in the station [their name tags identify them as Constables Wisso and Fongoa – two heavy, bald black men] that I’ve moved to Johannesburg, haven’t known where the relevant departments were and recently tried to effect a change of address.
“YOU ARE LYING!” They snap at me aggressively.
“You cannot drive your car, it’s not roadworthy; you will have to walk to Bloemfontein.”
“You will have to tell your girlfriend to come fetch you.”
“No, he will have to stay here over the weekend. Do you know how much bail is Meneer? R5000!”
The traffic officer who has been scribbling furiously in a booth comes up to me and waves a docket in my face.
“You are under arrest. You are not going anywhere this weekend. We are impounding your car.”
“Who is the officer in charge here,” I say. “I want to speak to him.”
“No one can help you until you see the magistrate on Monday.”
With that I call my father.
“Hi Dad. Sorry, not good news. I’m at Parys Police Station. They’ve arrested me for the wrong number plates and say I’m refusing to co-operate. They’ve impounded my car and say I’ll be here over the weekend so I need you to come bail me out.”
“I’m on my way.”
For quite some time paper work is filled in and officers offer sarcastic remarks [“It’s a long walk to Bloemfontein.” The traffic officer later instructs me to sit beside him while he fills in forms. I notice a clipboard that has names running in a hierarchy up and down. I call the name at the top of the pyramid, Commissioner Rapitsi. No answer. Captain Aucamp. No answer. Captain Prinsloo. The man who answers on Prinsloo’s number identifies himself as Captain Aucamp. With the officer sitting right beside me, I explain what has happened. Aucamp says: “It sounds like an illegal arrest. You must not sign anything.”
“I have already signed an affidavit.”
“What did you write?”
“Something about why I didn’t change my license disk.”
“Don’t sign anything else. They can’t hold you for such an insignificant offence.”
“They say I’m not co-operating but I am co-operating.”
“They must just give you a fine and let you go. Don’t say anything to them. But let me speak to someone in charge there.”
I try to avoid offering the phone to Wisso or Fongoa but in the end I hand it to one of them [Fongoa I believe]. His demeanor changes immediately and he quickly walks out of the police station. The traffic officer asks me: “Who did you speak to…” but the stuttering manner in which he asks tells me in an instant that a power shift has taken place, and he probably no longer has the upper hand. A few minutes later Fongoa returns, gives the phone to the man beside me who also does a brief disappearing trick.
The change in karma is manifest. No more sarcastic remarks. The swagger and posturing in the police station is suddenly gone. They hand me back my phone. Most significantly the jersey right in front of me (it’s brown, not blue) has his name tag pinned on it.
Two thoughts flash through my mind.
1) If they are going to arrest me I still need to know who the bozo is behind this.
With my cellphone I snap a picture of his name: TJ Nkonoane. [No, not TJ Hooker].
2) If this is an illegal arrest it could make an important story – police corruption, harassment, racism. I start to conjure up a magazine or newspaper story…EXCESSIVE JUSTICE…THE PIGS OF PARYS…
I go to the counter and raise my cellphone and as I do Nkonoane storms at me, seizes the phone from my hand (I photograph a blur).
“NOW YOU ARE DEFINITELY UNDER ARREST!” He bellows.
“NOW YOU WILL REMAIN HERE ALL WEEKEND.”
“NOW YOU GO TO JAIL.”
“You may not take photos of police officers in uniform?”
“Where does it say that?” I say.
I am relieved that my father is on his way, because now I have no means of getting help. There is no Captain Aucamp to help and I am not sure if I can remember the name on that jersey…
Wisso then makes a phone call and within 4 minutes a small man in blue PT shorts and a blue short sleeve shirt arrives. He pulls Nkonoane aside and tells him: “You can’t arrest him, tell him he has the the right to remain silent and then have him sign an affidavit. The he comes up to me and says: “I told you not to say anything didn’t I? I told you to just get the fine and go? Now you are in trouble.”He tries to find the photos on my phone. “Let me show you,” I say. “All I got was the man’s badge. Once you said it was an ‘illegal arrest’ I wanted to know who…”
I show Aucamp photo one and two. He seems to calm down until I say: “How should I know you can’t take pictures…”
“YOU ARE THE STUPIDEST IDIOT I HAVE EVER EVER MET. DIDN’T I TELL YOU TO CO-OPERATE. ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS GET THE FINE AND GO BUT YOU COULDN’T DO THAT. NOW YOU WILL BE ARRESTED! [Pause]. WILL YOU LISTEN TO ME NOW!”
I look up at him.
“This guy is going to give you a fine. On the fine you can see his name. If you are smart you will take it, keep your mouth shut and walk out of here.” With that Aucamp turns on his toes and walks out.
For another ten minutes Nkonoane scribbles into his papers. Wisso hands me my phone minus the image of Nkonoane's badge and the blurred image. Finally Nkonoane hands me one of the documents he has been working on for the past 3 hours. I can’t read his name from his signature. With plenty of extra saccharine, he explains how I can get off with a R100 payment if I explain my problems to the relevant authorities. He then offers me another fine for ‘Refusing to co-operate.’
I look up at him. “You can give me that fine, I’m just not going to sign it. I haven’t refused to co-operate.”
“Okay, don’t worry about this one.”
I stand up. “I need my license, my license disk, keys…”
“Traffic officers are out on the road to help you. We are there to keep you safe.”
“So all this has been about my best interests? You’ve done this to help me? You know this has been a ridiculous waste of my time. With all the stuff going on in South Africa do you really think an outdated number plate should be a priority? What about stolen cars, cars containing drugs or concealed weapons?”
“I’m a person. I’m a human being. I understand you want to go and see your girlfriend. We at the traffic department want you to drive safely, to arrive alive.”
Nkonoane is speaking so quickly his words start to become diarrhea. “We will always be on the highways watching and we will meet again and-.”
“I’ve got to go.”
Outside, it's 3pm. So much for my day off work. I call my father and turn him back. I ask a white officer, a woman, who has parked me in to move her car. I tell her what has just happened. She says I must institute a civil suit+, and contact the station commissioner.
Once past Vredeford I try to put the bad karma behind me. I find a field of sunflowers, their yellow tassels turned to face the warm glow of the Free State sun. I snap a few pictures of bees stirring the country air, collecting pollen on their hairy bodies on their way to making honey. I stand between all the nodding yellow heads and look up at the blue feeling grateful for something I didn’t know I had when I woke up this morning. Freedom.
*One valuable lesson I learned from this experience is that motor vehicle insurance doesn’t cover a vehicle with an expired license disk, so make sure you renew yours timeously.
+Damage claims for unlawful arrest and detention are in the region of R10 000 to R50 000. The court makes a finding based on the time spent in detention, as well as the standing of the arrested person in the community.
Note: Glossy number plates can be printed in 15-30 minutes for around R220 based on a driver’s license and a similar set of plates (or the relevant documentation.) License disks can be renewed at selected post offices – the old disk (or registration papers) and a driver’s license will be required. I was fined over R800 for allowing mine to lapse for 14 months. For a change of address a utility bill is needed in addition to a valid driver’s license and green identity book. Be prepared to queue!