What that meant was members of the police force were honest people who could be entrusted with our children. We knew then that the role of the police was to keep us safe and prevent anything that might disturb the peace.
They were clean. It was wonderful to visit any police camp and watch the policemen go through their morning drill. They were immaculate and their camps were clean too. Every camp had a gentleman policeman called the provost marshal (provosita); he was a terror. Children and wives of policemen feared him. His purpose was to see to it that the camp was kept spotless. He had the power to hold daily inspections (sipakisheni as people called them). He meted out instant justice to women who did not keep their houses and yards clean.
The policemen and women took this draconian cleanliness order out of the camp; their uniforms were always starched solid even if it meant the policemen had to change their walking gaits in order to keep them stiff. The cleanliness of police details back then was legendary.
Today just watch the policeman sitting next to you in the kombi. His uniform is weather beaten, his cap is discoloured and his boots have not been polished for ages and the soles are gone. The only new thing is the black cudgel he is holding. You woudn’t advise your grade one child to approach such a person for directions.
The truth is that in the eyes of the public the role of the police has changed. The policeman is no longer the people’s friend; his black baton says it all. “Come close to me and I’ll wallop you!”
Just read the newspapers. Daily there are reports of people minding their own legitimate business being beaten up by the police. Just watch their behaviour at the ubiquitous roadblocks. The purpose of roadblocks used to be to monitor badly behaved motorists and remove defective vehicles from the roads. In short, the roadblocks were to ensure the safety of the travelling public. But this purpose has been perverted.
The policemen and women at the roadblocks are rude; and the purposes of the roadblocks are unclear. The people fear the roadblocks instead of looking up to them. In the past the travellers were encouraged to tell the police any misdemeanours that public transport drivers did. Now the public is on the side of the misbehaving drivers, partly explaining the carnage on our roads.
At every roadblock motorists have to pay large amounts of money to the policemen, most of which are bribes. If they are ticketed at all they are not sure if the money they pay will be used for the right purposes.
Recently commuter omnibus operators protested the huge amou-nts they pay daily to police in order to remain on the roads. No member of the public would like lawlessness on the roads. They would love it if the police really meant to enforce the law on our highways because, too often, commuter omnibus crews are a menace.
They are rude and do not observe the highway code; so the police have to whip them into line. But they can hardly be doing this by extorting money from them.
During the 1970s war of liberation the police force, then called the British South Africa Police (BSAP) became a paramilitary force. Policemen were called up to fight the guerrillas in the bush.
Their behaviour could no longer be distinguished from that of career soldiers. They put up roadblocks to flush out the enemy, or rather perceived enemies, especially young men who were pulled off the buses and tortured in front of other travellers. Everyone was accused of being either a “terrorist” or a “terrorist collaborator”. The police became the most hated arm of the uniformed forces mainly because they dealt directly with civilians. Career soldiers were a lesser menace because they were often in the bush fighting.
The paramilitary character of the police — a legacy from the war — seems to have continued in independent Zimbabwe. At independence in 1980 the police force ought to have been reformed from a quasi-military outfit to a real people’s force. This did not happen. Instead every policeman became a member of the riot squad hence the cudgels they have to carry even when they are only helping pre-school children cross the road.
Granted, the police force should have a riot squad even in times of peace, because humans being humans they can disturb the peace for very silly reasons. Fans of losing football teams have been known to riot and the police have come in handy to restore order. But the riot squad has to maintain a subtle presence and then make a show of force when there is a real threat of a disturbance of peace.
As it is, the police have managed only to instil fear instead of confidence into the people. This is wrong. When people fear an institution, they gang up against it and eventually fight it not only in a physical way but also mainly through sabotage.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police should really make an effort to restore confidence in the people. Defending misbehaviour as the Poli-ce-Commissioner-General did last
week in comments on roadblocks doesn’t help anyone. The police should investigate itself and if there really are bad apples, they should be flushed out. But, it would seem, the problem is not about bad apples; it is really about a bad culture that has entrenched itself in the force.
The Police Act needs to be revisited by everyone in the force and be enforced according to its letter and spirit. Partisan policing needs to be got rid of; it doesn’t help the force itself or the civilians. Criminality increases when the police become partisan and biased. In the Harare high-density suburb of Mbare for example, the police have protected an outfit called Chipangano which has perpetrated acts of gross criminality. Now, no one knows if anyone who masquerades as a member of Chipangano really belongs to the shadowy group.
Recently motorists in Mbare were being asked to pay parking fees by men who claimed to belong to Chipangano; this has spawned more criminals in the suburbs.
Examples of partisan policing abound. Now is the time to reform the force so that it really works for the people.
BY NEVANJI MADANHIRE