Johannesburg Road Blocks: A small but symbolic abuse of police power

This is a short description of an incident that took place in Johannesburg on 7 September. It is an example of state abuse of power and wasted resources. In the bigger scheme of things currently happening in South Africa it was relatively minor, but we record it here because we are concerned by its symbolism and that it portends worse to come.

This is a short description of an incident that took place in Johannesburg on 7 September. It is an example of state abuse of power and wasted resources. In the bigger scheme of things currently happening in South Africa it was relatively minor, but we record it here because we are concerned by its symbolism and that it portends worse to come.

This is a short description of an incident that took place in Johannesburg on 7 September. It is an example of state abuse of power and wasted resources. In the bigger scheme of things currently happening in South Africa it was relatively minor, but we record it here because we are concerned by its symbolism and that it portends worse to come.

Five members of the TAC management and secretariat were travelling from Johannesburg airport to the SECTION27 office in Braamfontein. We left the airport no later than 9:50am and expected to arrive at our destination by 10:30am. We only arrived at about 12pm after being caught up in a traffic jam for over two hours. At first we thought there must have been a major accident, but we were surprised that no radio traffic reports mentioned the blockage. When the jam started, many cars crossed the dirt intersection separating the left and right sides of the highway in order to go in the opposite direction.

Eventually we discovered the cause. The South African Police Service (SAPS) [please note – not the traffic police] were conducting a massive road-block. Two lanes of the three-lane highway were closed off. At least 50 police cars –probably a lot more– were involved, and presumably 100s of police officers. From what we could tell, every single car was stopped. Our experience appeared to be identical to others.

We were ordered to exit the vehicle and place whatever was in our pockets on the car seats. We were then body-searched. Then the boot of our car was very cursorily examined. No warrants were produced. We were filmed by a SAPS cameraman as well. The officer who dealt with us was polite. We asked if there was a reason for the road block. He explained that it was routine.

Besides that it is unlawful to body-search people without reasonable cause and/or a warrant, this hugely wasteful exercise diverted significant police resources from useful work. It also no doubt cost Johannesburg more money and lost time than any recent strike or civil disobedience action of similar duration. There have been far worse abuses of police power in recent years, but we were left wondering if this small event signals worse to come.

 

Postscript: A Zambian employee of TAC upon reading this story has told us that this has been a common experience for her. She is regularly asked for her passport at roadblocks, which is probably unlawful. On one occasion she did not have it. She was told by the police she had to have it on her all the time. This is false; there is no obligation on foreign nationals to carry their passports on them.

 

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