Despised as tools of S. African whites, black policemen take brunt of hatred

August 11, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

DAVEYTON, South Africa -- Out of the mouths of children came a torrent of abuse, hurled like daggers at the bulky black policeman.

"Tshabalala is a dog. You ugly thing. Tshabalala, we're going to kill you tonight."

Lt. Col. Simon Tshabalala stood firmly in his blue-gray uniform, looking unhappy but unshaken by the taunts. As police chief in this bustling black township of more than 1 million people, he has grown accustomed to the threats of angry young militants.

"They're just insulting me," he said, translating the insults from Zulu into English for a group of visitors at an anti-government rally. "They do it all the time. They call my home at night. They speak to my wife. They abuse us. They threaten us."

The threats came in detail on this particular day recently, as hundreds of school-age youngsters gathered at the shabby local stadium for a rally and march to the police station to protest the shooting of a man by police the previous day.

"Tshabalala, we're coming to your house with our AK-47s," someone shouted, referring to the Soviet-made assault rifles. "Tshabalala, we're going to cut off your private parts."

After a half-hour, with the crowd still agitated, the colonel was forced to retreat. They erupted into cheers and dancing in the stands as his white Ford pulled out of the stadium.

Colonel Tshabalala, 54, is one of South Africa's highest-ranking police officers. It's not a happy place. He is a prominent black policeman at a time when townships across South Africa are brimming with hatred for the police. The white-controlled national force is seen by black activists as a tool used to harass and kill blacks in the townships, and black officers are seen as tools of the whites.

A leading white pathologist added to the controversy this month by stating that police were out of control and were killing an average of one black suspect a week.

In Daveyton, a man was shot by police last week through the windshield of a truck as he entered the township with several others from another community. The group was stopped by white riot troops who were searching cars for weapons, and the travelers were refusing to be searched when the shot was fired.

White authorities say police fired in self-defense when they killed the unidentified black man, who they say was carrying a spear.

Colonel Tshabalala says that he is not sure what happened but that none of his officers was involved. He commands a squad of 200 blacks responsible for local crime control.

Local activists say it was a clear case of murder.

Across the country, black anger has mounted at police abuses -- both real and perceived -- and an unprecedented number of policemen have been killed. About 130 officers have died violently in South Africa so far this year, many of them ambushed on the road or attacked in their homes.

Black officers are a special target because they are the most visible symbol in the townships of the white-minority government. White officers go home to their quiet white communities; black policemen are left behind in the simmering townships, where they are often despised by their neighbors.

Colonel Tshabalala said the homes of five of his men were attacked with homemade "petrol bombs" this year. His home has not been bothered, but young activists organized a campaign against his wife, Muriel, last year after she was promoted to principal at the local school.

"They gave her an hour to vacate the school, or she would be killed and the car would be burned," the police chief recalled.

"She's not teaching anymore," he said, adding that they have decided to keep quiet about her current job. Their children have been sent to white schools outside the township.

To say that times have changed since Simon Tshabalala joined the police force in 1957 is an understatement.

In those days there was no stigma attached to the job of policing black townships.

"It was a job. It was considered one of the professions, like teaching and nursing," Colonel Tshabalala said.

The change started in 1976, during the Soweto student uprisings against the white educational system, but it really took hold in themid-1980s, when townships across the country exploded with anti-government fervor.

Anti-apartheid activists vowed to make the townships "ungovernable" by white authorities, and they attacked local blacks who helped to make the white system work, such as black mayors, township council members and policemen. All were branded "collaborators." Many were attacked. Some were set on fire outside their homes. Hundreds resigned.

Those who remained on the job, like Colonel Tshabalala, were caught between white superiors who had no understanding of township life and black militants who viewed them as collaborators with the white system.

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