January 6, 2009

The Short, Fat Arm of the Law

(This is a longer story than usual and not at all about any of my usual topics. But read the whole thing and I think you’ll like it.)

In my time in South Africa, I have been occasionally stopped by what I would call roadblocks, set up by the traffic control police who stop vehicles to check for safety. Usually, a cop takes a look at my license, checks my inspection sticker, and I am waved on. I make sure to greet them in Xhosa, they marvel at a white guy speaking Xhosa, notice the “African Medical Mission” signs on the car, and away I go. I don’t like these roadblocks because they slow down traffic and create safety hazards. And I really don’t like them because I believe they are not allowed in the U.S. because they violate the illegal search and seizure part of the Constitution. (Lawyers out there can correct my constitutional guesswork.) But I realize the rules may be different here.

On Sunday, I skipped church - gasp! - and was driving into town to buy a new toaster to replace my broken one. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.” Indeed.

Shortly after setting out, I saw a roadblock. I got waved down and prepared for nothing more than the usual display of my license. But when I showed it to the police officer, she said, “Alaska?” and walked off to show it to her supervisor. I expected her supervisor to wave me through. She didn’t. The first police officer came back and told me I needed an international driver’s license and I would have to pull off to the side of the road. I asked to speak to the supervisor before I did that, assuming I had a rookie cop who didn’t know the rules.

But the supervisor was unbending and kept insisting I needed a international license even though I explained how on the twenty or so previous occasions when I have been stopped my license has not presented even the slightest hint of a problem. “But it’s the law; those other police don’t know it,” she responded. “Don’t you think you should teach them the law before you teach me?” I asked. She just grinned maliciously and didn’t answer. “Can I see the law?” I asked. “We have that at the police station; you can see it when we get there,” she responded.

Before I drove off the road, I asked to speak to the guy in charge of the whole roadblock. He was equally unbending. He showed me his license. “If I tried to drive in Alaska on my South African license, would they let me?” I explained they would because South Africa and the U.S. have a reciprocity agreement where they mutually recognize licenses. (Lawyers can again correct me here.) He didn’t believe me and just whistled and said, “yho, yho, yho” as men do here when things are not going well for me.

I resigned myself to pulling off the road with the twenty or so other cars that had been stopped. A few unlucky souls had forgotten their licenses at home; a few others were driving obviously un-roadworthy cars. I was the only white person. When someone asked me why I had been stopped and I explained the reason he looked incredulous. “You are from America and they stopped you?” I agreed it was a bit unreasonable. Usually my white skin keeps me from ever getting into situations like this.

The plan, evidentially, was for the police to finish their “operation” (as they called the roadblock) then drive all of us law-breakers in a convoy to the police station where they would write us all tickets, impound our cars, and send us on our way. This struck me as horribly inefficient - why not just write the tickets here instead of causing a gigantic traffic jam at the station or deal with us individually as we were pulled over? - and I was again bemoaning African inefficiency when a woman in the car ahead of me started asking exactly the same questions. Apparently not all Africans are inefficient; just the ones with important jobs.

At one point, the first supervisor I spoke with came over and showed me a license from Nigeria. “This is what you need,” she said. “See, it says on it ‘international drivers license.’” The license clearly said, “Republic of Nigeria, National Drivers License.” I pointed this out to her. “No, it says ‘international drivers license.” I explained it didn’t. No matter how hard I tried to explain this to her, she wouldn’t accept that she was clearly mis-reading it. What do you with a person like that, especially one in authority?

In the movie “Michael Clayton,” George Cloony plays a lawyer whose job it is to solve unexpected problems that crop up among the firm’s wealthy clients and lawyers. Fortunately, I have my own personal Michael Clayton in Mthatha. Her name is Mary and she is African Medical Mission’s business manager. She has lived in Mthatha her entire life, is fluently trilingual, has experienced every possible thing this town could throw at you, and - and this is really helpful - knows half the town. I gave her a call, explained the situation, and she said she’d come right down.

While I waited, I had a chance to observe the “operation” in action. It was a mess and it appalled me. Most cars were flagged down, checked, and sent on their way. But if a vehicle was waved down and just kept on going, no one made any effort to chase after it or stop it. There were several buses that had been stopped but as the section of road where this roadblock was was not particularly wide, they partially blocked the road, making it dangerously unsafe and I saw several near accidents.

The more senior cops kept coming and going in their cars, obviously trying to demonstrate their importance by not being around. Some cops just wandered around disinterestedly, clearly wanting the operation to be over. Other cops just hung out in clumps. A few wanted to demonstrate the authority conveyed by the lightweight, fluorescent jersey they were wearing that said “traffic control” and were strutting around showing off. There is clearly no physical fitness requirement to be a traffic control officer as there were a couple grossly overweight cops, including the initial supervisor I had spoken with. She still had my license and was clearly delighting in the power she had over me. She kept taunting me by waving it around and slapping it against her hand. I tried to ignore her but she kept wanting to talk to me, mainly so she could show off that she had my license and I didn’t.

Watching the whole “operation,” I couldn’t help but think of my own experience managing a fairly large group of people into one common task - an evening program at a summer camp. It was almost identical. Then, there were the counselors who tried to show off their importance by acting like they were in charge; there were the counselors who clumped with their friends and ignored the kids; there were the counselors who did everything they could to get out of the event, agreeing it was a great event they just were too busy to be a part of. And on and on. (Before anyone accuses me of pointing fingers, let me say I have been each of those counselors on different occasions.) This roadblock had even less discipline or coherence than the typical evening program.

Mary soon arrived and it was a thing of beauty to watch her work, cajoling, pleading, joking, laughing, hugging, upbraiding, knowing when to take a break, and on and on. Under her explicit instructions (“keep your mouth shut!”), I said not a word. (One or two might have slipped out but under her glare I shoved them back in.) She knew at least four of the senior cops there but not the guy in charge (who wasn’t there when she arrived) and it took probably half an hour to get them to let me go. Basically, she got them to let me drive to the police station on my own instead of in the convoy. Then we waited for the convoy to show up - lights blaring, sirens going, showing off how significant they were, and blocking traffic in both directions on the street (efficiency, what efficiency?). It might have been more impressive but the cops didn’t have enough room in their vehicles for all the officers at the roadblock so several of the cops had had to hitch rides with the soon-to-be impounded vehicles in the convoy. Mary spoke to the guy in charge when they arrived, he looked at us like he’d never seen us before, and we were on our way. The whole thing had taken about two hours and the toaster store had closed in the meantime.

I was never seriously worried about anything in the entire ordeal but I just found it all so aggravating. It made me so disappointed about South Africa that they could have such an undisciplined, inconsistent, and incapable traffic control force whose members were clearly more interested in reveling in their own (perceived) authority rather than enforcing the law, which they apparently do not know. Mary mentioned to me at one point, “in this town, it is not what you know but who you know.” I know this to be true in most parts of the world even when we kid ourselves that it is not. But to see the truth of this statement so blatantly is just disappointing. What about the people in Itipini who know no one? How do they get ahead?

I’ve been here for a while now, long enough at any rate to start being hopeful about the future of this country on a number of levels. But this just sets that feeling back miles. How are South Africans supposed to get ahead when they keep scoring so many “own goals”?

I called a lawyer friend on Sunday night and he said he’d get me a copy of the National Traffic Act I can keep in the glove box. That would reassure me more if I was more confident in the cops’ ability to read what is in front of their eyes.


Linden said...

yho indeed.