Black S. African Police Walk Lonely Beat : Racial conflict: Despised by other nonwhites, officers live in constant fear.
At dawn in deepest Soweto, Philemon Sibanyoni prepared for what is always the riskiest part of his day--the drive to work.
He peered out his living room windows, coated in clear plastic on the inside to repel hand grenades and covered on the outside by a decorative brick wall with slits through which to see.
The street was quiet. It was time to move out.
Sibanyoni put on his hat, went into the garage and backed his red Volkswagen down the narrow drive. A couple of neighbors usually spot the black man with thinning hair and glasses as he leaves, but they don’t wave. He doesn’t mind. Having good friends can be dangerous, Sibanyoni says.
On bad days, Sibanyoni’s route is blocked with stones or burning tires. On the good days, like this, the most unpleasant part of the journey is passing the revolutionary slogans splattered on the low walls: “Join the People’s Army.” “Down With Operation Iron Fist.” “Viva ANC.”
Fifteen minutes later, Sibanyoni drove past the sandbags guarding Soweto’s Dobsonville Police Station. He settled in behind his desk, and an aide brought coffee. Louis de Wet, a white captain, entered with a brisk salute for his commander.
“Good morning, Maj. Sibanyoni,” De Wet said.
South Africa’s 40,000 black police officers, accounting for roughly half the national force, have lived in constant fear as the number of attacks on them and their families jumped this year.
More than 90 officers, most of them black, have been killed in 1990, the highest total since the township uprising of 1984-86. Some have died while on duty. Others were assassinated while sleeping in their beds, watching television, walking on the streets or driving their cars.
Despised by anti-apartheid activists and shunned by almost everyone else, black police officers are the loneliest black men and women in the country. Yet blacks are still lining up by the thousands to join the police force, because in South Africa, a job--any job--is scarce. Police work, despite the risks, puts food on the table.
Every six months, the nation’s black police college graduates a new crop of 1,260 recruits and sifts through twice that many applications for the next class.
“We’ve got so many applications that we can’t handle them all,” said Col. Johann Fourie, deputy commander of the college, in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.
The starting salary is good by township standards, about $4,500 a year, with rapid increases, and police officers receive medical benefits, home loans and tuition for technical colleges.
“There is security for a young guy in the police force,” said Lt. Benjamin Mavuso, a black instructor at the college.
Financial security, maybe. But not much personal security. The gun they carry is little protection for the uniform they wear.
Black police officers have long been a prime target of angry young radicals, who consider them deadly instruments of oppression and traitors to the black liberation cause. Over the past decade, hundreds of black protesters, guerrilla fighters and, occasionally, innocent bystanders have been killed by police bullets in the streets and, allegedly, by police boots and fists in interrogation rooms.
This year, with the lifting of the four-year state of emergency and new political freedom for anti-apartheid groups, violence on both sides of the racial divide has soared. More than 230 black civilians have been killed by police trying to quell unrest, according to the Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg.
“When I took the oath, my mother was a little bit worried,” admitted Frank Mzondi, a 24-year-old constable who graduated from the police college in November. “But then I told her that being a policeman works hand in hand with religion. You must believe God will be at your side. When I told her that, she felt better.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that Philemon Sibanyoni is an elder in his church, a man who believes police work is a calling from God and for whom the Bible is an emotional shield. In church each Sunday, he searches for the peace that eludes him during the week.
Sibanyoni joined the force when he was 19, and over the past 35 years he has been highly decorated, rising to a rank held by only a handful of black men. He commands a Soweto precinct with 140 policemen, is saluted by white as well as black officers and makes a comfortable annual salary of about $18,000, plus benefits.
But he has to vary his route to work each day and regularly changes the make of his unmarked police car. He is afraid to walk in his neighborhood, seldom emerges from his house at night and chain-smokes cigarettes, a habit he blames on “the pressure of the job.”
His wife, Rebecca, wants him to give up the blue uniform with the star on the shoulder and the 9-millimeter service revolver to become an ordinary citizen again. She is afraid for them both.
Their house has been attacked twice by hand grenades, his car once stalled in the midst of a rock-throwing mob and just three months ago, while it was still daylight, Rebecca Sibanyoni was terrorized by 30 youths who raided their home in search of weapons.
“You can’t be proud to be a policeman now, because we are expecting a bomb at any time,” Sibanyoni said one recent afternoon, resting on a sofa in the dark living room of his fortified house. The sounds of children playing in the street drifted in through an open window.
“Nobody in the township identifies with us,” he added. “We are totally isolated.”
The major, his wife and their 4-year-old grandson, Musa, live in a six-room house in the heart of Soweto, a township of 2.5 million blacks 15 miles southwest of Johannesburg.
After a week of 10- to 12-hour workdays, Sibanyoni relaxes on Saturdays by gardening the narrow strip between the house and his fence. He often preaches at a Methodist church on Sundays, telling parishioners that he is not their boss but their servant. His favorite sermon revolves around the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Romans: Obey those in authority.
Sibanyoni was born 54 years ago on a white man’s farm, and his father moved to Johannesburg to work as a laborer because he wanted a proper education for Philemon and his seven brothers and sisters.
Sibanyoni joined the force in 1955, and his first assignments came in two white Johannesburg suburbs, where he handled crimes involving mostly black servants and gardeners. At the time, black policemen were not allowed to carry guns or arrest white people.
The black police officer’s primary duty until the late 1970s was to enforce the pass laws, which restricted the movement of blacks from rural areas to the white cities. It was unpleasant duty, and it made him a symbol of repression.
“You would find someone being employed, trying to make an honest living, but simply because of the pass laws we had to arrest him,” Sibanyoni remembered. “I wasn’t happy with it. But there was nothing I could do. It was the law.”
In those days, many black men and women in South Africa kept their eyes lowered, grateful for any kindness from whites, and tried to ignore the inequality of the segregated, white-run society.
“We took everything as it came. What could we do? We had to accept it, good or bad,” Sibanyoni said. “But I’ve always felt I was equal (to a white). Though he may not accept it, I know it.”
In 1977, Sibanyoni was transferred to the Jabulani police station in Soweto, the country’s largest black township. That year, Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement, died of a cerebral hemorrhage while in police custody. A year earlier, police attempts to stop an uprising of students in Soweto had touched off a nationwide blood bath.
By 1984, the townships were seething. As police used guns and tear gas to put down the disturbances, they moved into the cross hairs of angry anti-apartheid activists.
As Sibanyoni put it: “That’s when our death warrants were signed.”
A hand grenade aimed at Sibanyoni’s bedroom window that year bounced off the frame and exploded outside, shattering all the house’s windows. No one was hurt, but Sibanyoni decided to send his three children to boarding schools far away.
The township trouble escalated, but, Sibanyoni said, he never seriously considered resigning, as anti-apartheid activists demanded.
“Being black, I have no vote,” Sibanyoni said. “I don’t make the laws of this country, and they know that very well. Will they give me a job if I leave the force? Will they maintain my children? I’ve got to fend for my own living.”
He knew that police had killed many people, but he said it was the only way to protect innocent lives and property.
“If there are no other ways of stopping people from rioting, burning businesses and killing, we have to apply heavier measures,” he said. “And that’s what the members (of the force) did.”
As attacks on black policemen increased, many of them moved to the outskirts of Soweto, settling in residential enclaves where they could protect each other. Sibanyoni wanted to move too, and he put his $17,000 house up for sale. But there were no buyers, and two years later he borrowed $8,000 and hired a construction company to fortify it.
A brick curtain wall, with narrow gaps, was erected outside his living room and bedroom windows. He also extended the garage, covering the dining room windows. Even if it didn’t stop people from wanting to kill him, he figured, it would keep them from succeeding.
During the construction, in 1986, a second hand grenade was tossed at the house, again ricocheting off the facade into the yard, where it exploded, causing no injuries.
He soon felt safer at home, but the township still was dangerous. At midnight on New Year’s Eve that year, Sibanyoni turned down a street barricaded with rocks and burning tires. As he tried to reverse, his car stalled, and large stones hailed down from the darkness.
He pulled his pistol from its holster, preparing to use it for the first time, and thought, “I’ve got to defend myself or die,” he remembered. But before he could fire, a voice shouted at the youths, telling them to stop. The stoning ended and Sibanyoni drove away.
The extra protection at home discouraged attacks until last September.
Rebecca Sibanyoni, who runs a nursery school, was home alone when the phone line was cut and more than two dozen young men, armed with automatic rifles, pistols and knives, scaled a wall and burst in through the back door.
They demanded firearms, including the major’s ceremonial sword, part of his dress uniform. Then they searched the house and, finding no sword or other weapons, left with three police caps, two camouflage shirts, one jacket, a pair of trousers, a portable piano and a radio.
Rebecca Sibanyoni wasn’t hurt, but she was shaken.
“We’re no longer safe here,” she told her husband. “I know it’s an important job. But it’s also dangerous, too dangerous for a family man.”
The Sibanyonis’ neighborhood once was full of police officers and their families. But now Sibanyoni is the only one left. He doesn’t go out of his way to make friends outside the police force and his church.
“I don’t want somebody close to me,” he said. “It’s always a risk. You let your guard down and you can be ambushed.”
That attitude pervades the police force.
In Sibanyoni’s station in Dobsonville, a sign on the bulletin board reads: “You are the target.” As if anyone needed to be told. A few weeks ago, one of the station’s detectives was attacked while walking near his home and ended up in the hospital, fortunate to be alive.
“It’s only the lucky policeman who hasn’t been attacked,” Sibanyoni said.
Like many police officers, Sibanyoni blames the newly legalized African National Congress for the attacks.
“The ANC wants to make the country ungovernable, and each and every government institution is under attack--schools, hospitals, township councils,” Sibanyoni said. “The only stumbling block is the police.”
Sibanyoni doesn’t blame ANC leader Nelson Mandela, whom he remembers as a good lawyer who often defended black policemen in the 1950s. But he blames the radical ANC youth, who don’t listen to Mandela’s pleas for peace.
“Everything went wrong from the start,” he said. “These children were never taught about civics. They don’t know that a policeman is not serving the government. He is serving and protecting them. The policeman will be here long after this government is gone.”
But police still kill protesters, and activists say police continue to torture detainees as well. This year, two 15-year-old activists have died of blows to the skull while being questioned by police. A police investigation has absolved the interrogators.
The ANC also contends that right-wing police officers have been behind the current wave of black faction fighting that has seized townships around Johannesburg, leaving more than 1,000 dead in the past five months. ANC leaders say the police support Zulu chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha Party, which has been at war with ANC supporters.
The police deny the allegations. No independent investigations have been conducted into the violence.
Sibanyoni’s precinct of Dobsonville--with 100,000 residents, it is about the size of Santa Monica--is one of the quieter areas of Soweto. Yet it has a weekly average of one murder, 15 armed robberies and 15 car thefts.
Of Sibanyoni’s force, only Capt. De Wet is not black, but many white police work in the Soweto riot squad, under the command of a white officer. (The pay scales for black and white police are identical, but many more whites than blacks hold officer rank.)
Because they live and work in the townships, black police generally face far greater risks than their white colleagues. But Sibanyoni is philosophical about the dangers.
“I cannot escape death,” he said. “It will come anyhow, so running away from death is impossible.”
However, he recently began scouting apartments in Johannesburg, where the City Council has voted to open neighborhoods to blacks. He’s weary of the constant threat of attack but also disturbed by the loud radios in his Soweto neighborhood. Yet complaining about the noise is out of the question.
“If I say something, I am inviting trouble,” he explained. “My policy is to remain anonymous.”
So instead he dreams of greener pastures in Johannesburg.
“It’s quiet there,” he said. “Even if your dog barks too much, the police come. And there is no possibility that I wake up in the morning and find stones blocking the road.”
In July, Sibanyoni will be eligible to leave the force and begin drawing his pension. He’s had his mind made up on that for some time now.
“I will retire then,” he said. “If I’m still alive, of course.”