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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Mistaken Identity

I’m writing a movie script. It’s a police drama—South African style. I don’t know what it’s called yet, but I know it’s gonna be a blockbuster. Some may wonder what business I have writing about police activities. Wait a minute and you’ll see that I have very vivid memories of dealing with the police from a very early age.
Like any child growing up in a township in the 1980’s, any business involving police never augured well with me. My first encounter with the police was back in 1983. I was young, very young but the memory of that encounter still lingers on my mind like a hideous nightmare. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was lying on the bed with my father. My father was one of the most fantastic storytellers that I have ever known. But this day his storytelling was interrupted by a knock at the door. If you lived in South Africa in the eighties you would know “the police knock”. It was unique. You would never mistake it for anything. In fact, it was less a knock than the thumping on the door! It reverberated like a thunderstorm in our two-roomed house.
Instinctively, I jumped to open the door. I removed the metal latch and the door swung open. I was engulfed with a shade of blue. There in front of me was an enormous white man in a blue police uniform. I had seen him before. Everyone in the township knew him. Older boys used to run for cover at the sight of his yellow police van which spotted a BDK registration. It didn’t matter that they were not involved in any unlawful activities. Their sin was being young men in a disorderly state.
I had never seen the horrendous policeman so close. He was right in front of me. In my father’s house. In our home. I still do not understand how he managed to walk through the door because the man seemed bigger and taller than the door.
“Ngubani lowo?” my father shouted from the other room asking who it was. The white man went past me.
“Heyi, yiz’ apha wena!” He had called on my father in a very demeaning manner. “Heyi” is very offensive and was viewed as a derogatory word to use among our people. If you wanted to pick a fight, you would start by saying, “Heyi, where are you going?” and your potential victim would respond by saying I am not “heyi” to you. An argument would erupt. And then blows would be exchanged.
But now the policeman was referring to my father as “heyi” and my father complied with his orders. My father had spent that very afternoon regaling me with heroic stories of him and his three brothers. That no one could defeat them in stick-fighting. From the Great Fish River, across the Tyhume River and throughout the entire region of the AmaTola Mountains, the brothers were respected warriors. No one could beat them, he had told me. The evidence was the scars that criss-crossed his forehead.
My father had been called outside by the policeman. His manhood was diminishing right in front of the nosy onlookers. He didn’t have his stick with him. The policeman had his gun with him. My father was there talking to the enormous policeman. And I heard my mother’s voice. My mother, the soft-spoken Christian woman, sounded different. She was shouting. I never heard her shout before. But that day she was shouting. Shouting at the white policeman. I was proud of my mother.
The door opened gently. It was my father with my mother on tow.
“What are they saying, dad?” I asked.
“They say I stole a car.” He duly explained.
“When?” I am not sure whether I was asking when he stole the car or when the police say he had stolen it.
“But we’ve been here all day.” I said obviously perplexed.
“That’s what I’ve been telling them. But they found the car outside our gate.”
“What colour is it?” I asked getting curious.
“It’s red.”
A red car outside my home. How I wished the car could be given to my father if it was lost. He would learn how to drive it and would surely take good care of it. I had picked up a stray puppy and grew very fond of it. I named him Chomie because he became my friend. The same could happen to the car if it was lost. It’s no big deal, I concluded.
The door swung open again. It was the stout policeman. “Yiz’ apha!” he had said and my father didn’t move an inch. I looked at my father and his face contorted in a defiant grimace. The policeman pointed at me with his fat white index finger.
“Heyi, ndithetha nawe.” He said, making it clear that he was calling me and not my father. I noticed for the first time that he had grey eyes. I never knew that white people had grey eyes. May be with those grey eyes he couldn’t tell that I was a child, I said to myself inwardly.
“Heyi, ngumntwana lo.” I felt so proud when my father said “heyi” to the dreaded policeman, telling him that I was only a child. The policeman fixed his gaze at me and, in the same way my father had done earlier, I got up and went outside with the policeman.
“Who stole that car, is it your father?” He asked in Xhosa. I looked towards the direction he was pointing to and there were many cars. I tried to respond but my throat was dry and nothing audible came out of my mouth. He repeated the same words. I swallowed saliva and gave it a try one more time. I heard my hoarse and shaky voice saying, “I don’t know.” As soon as those words came out of my mouth I felt a warm liquid trickling down my cheeks.
“Listen boetie, did your father steal that car?” The rhino in front of me persisted. He spoke slowly through clenched teeth putting emphasis on each syllable. He touched the bulge on his waist like a cowboy getting ready for a gunfight. My favourite TV dramas at the time included Magnum P.I., The “A” Team and Knight Rider, and from these films I knew very well what police kept on their waists. The thought of violent death visited my young mind for the first time. My mother screamed that the policeman was about to kill me. My father shouted that the white pig dared to touch his son. I wet my khaki shorts.
Until that day, I always looked up to my father. I knew my father was invincible. But at that moment I wondered what my father could do against such an enormous white man. My father was a small man and his homemade rusty bayonet did not stand a chance against the white man’s gun. Numerous guns. I had never seen so many cars around my home before. They were driven by the police. And police had guns.
“You are not taking my son anywhere,” my father kept shouting at the white man. “You rather kill me,” he offered himself as a sacrifice. The enormous white man
in front of me had bended to my height. I could smell his warm whiff. He was talking but I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I was crying. And he beckoned me to go back to the house. My wet shorts were stuck to my skin as I walked. My father was there talking to the policeman. I wondered if the policeman was going to take my father’s life as my father had offered. I didn’t want to loose my father.
After what seemed like eternity, both my parents came back with undisguised fury across their faces. My mother was grumbling about disrespectful white men. My father couldn’t believe that they would accuse him of being a car thief whereas he could not drive even a tractor. I wished my father had a car. Red car, red car, how I long for you.
“Mom.” I called out to my mother.
“Yes, my dear little boy.” She had said in English and forced a smile as she turned to look at me. The phrase was from a nursery rhyme she had coined me: “Oh my dear little baby; Oh my dear little boy.” I would giggle and kick the air as she held me above her head and repeated the words. Those were just about the only familiar English words to me even though I didn’t know what they meant at the time.
“I hate white people.” As soon as I said those words she took a glance at my father. I also looked at my father. He took the blanket and covered his face. My mother drank water from a jug and hummed her favourite church hymn. I was disappointed that my comment was not received with any adulation.
There was another knock at the door. Gentler this time. It was another white man. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt. He had hair on his arms. He had a star outside his left chest-pocket. He had nicely trimmed black hair. He was clean shaven. He was handsome. If he was in a movie, he would definitely be a starring. Handsome people don’t deserve to be thugs!
He spoke in a language that I couldn’t understand. My father responded without getting up. The white man said something to my mother too. My mother responded in a strange language. White people’s language, I assumed. The white man turned to me. He pulled my cheek gently with his two fingers and said a familiar sound. The same sound that my mother would make when she saw a cute baby. He made a gesture like a good bye. I lifted my right hand and waved at the handsome white man. He was smiling as he opened the door to leave. That was the last I saw him. And the last time I saw a white man in our house that day.
My mother screamed that the bread she was baking had burned. She switched off the primus stove. And only then was I conscious of the smell and the smoke that filled the house. I took off the wet khaki shorts and got into bed next to my father. I asked what the friendly conversation was all about and my mother told me that the white man that came last was a traffic officer. He had seen and chased the thief all the way from Port Elizabeth but he got away. He knew what the culprit looked like. And that it wasn’t my father.
But my movie is not about this traumatic experience from the bad old days of the 1980’s. It’s about today’s incidents. And I want it to feature prominent individuals. I want my starring to be our King of Police. I like the guy. I believe he possesses features of a movie star. He is one of very few politicians who do not have a round belly. He is tall, dark and handsome. His bald hair, toned body and stylishly trimmed beard all remind me of the hunky Keenen Ivory Wayans from the 1994 action comedy, A Low Down Dirty Shame.
Mine won’t follow the clichéd motif of a cop who’s been expelled from the force and comes back to investigate the case without the permission of his bosses; takes risks and cracks the case, something that will earn him praise. I think that kind of plot is archaic now.
There are more interesting police stories in South Africa today. Not long ago, Traffic Officers embarked on a strike and there was a looming threat that they would exchange fire with the members of our Police Service. I wasn’t sure which officers mattered most to society. Shortly after this strange incident, the soldiers marched to the State President’s office, The Union Buildings. I feared for my life as the police dispersed them with rubber bullets and humiliated members of our national defense force. The soldiers promised to hit back. I’m grateful sanity prevailed.
And as we speak, the former top cop is in the dock over his dealings with some drug lords. There’s a subplot of the death of a mining magnate. The dead man is implicated as a sponsor of some young lions—our future leaders. Come on, that should be the juiciest one especially when the man who replaces the top cop wears cowboy hats! My cast is increasing. This is all material for a blockbuster. But that is a script for another day.
My current movie stars only one man. Our King of Police as a no-nonsense cop who goes to the heart of the matter. The tagline of the film would be “He is armed. He shoots to kill!” and Mandoza’s Nkalakatha will be the sound track. I want my starring to be more like a thug with a police badge. He will be motivated by the desire to prevent and combat crime, by all means. I haven’t decided on my setting yet, but it must be a slum where crime is more prevalent. There will be a gun-totting gang that is terrorizing the community. And the King of Police will go there to find the kingpin.
You see, bravery is one of the main characteristics of a starring. He must go where no one else would dare set a foot. He must be armed with two firearms. One on his hip and the other secretly strapped to his ankle. After shooting down all the kingpin’s henchmen, he will chase his main opponent who will keep disappearing between the shacks. They will exchange fire until he runs out of live ammunition. He will then pull out his spare firearm and shoot the fleeing gangster in the head. He will go to the dead body to say words of triumph like, “Tell all other dead thugs there’s a new cop in town!”
But when he gets to the spot where the lifeless body lies, he realises that the gang leader had escaped. The dead body is not the gangster. It is the body of a three year old boy with a deep wound in his forehead. The boy was playing with his friends when he was mistaken for a criminal. The dead boy is the King of Police’s son. The King of Police’s only son looses his life because of mistaken identity. I wish I could write this as a movie script. But this melodrama is unfolding in our day and era.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 30th, 2009 @10:02 #

    Policing past; policing present. Like you hint, what horrors could the future bring?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    November 30th, 2009 @10:26 #

    A very moving and thought-provoking post, Siphiwo.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Siphiwo</a>
    December 2nd, 2009 @07:09 #

    Thank you both. Interesting times indeed!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    December 3rd, 2009 @10:02 #

    I'm deeply moved by this story of your childhood trauma at the hands of the police. It's also telling that you learned about storytelling in the warm embrace of your father. His gift lives on in you.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    December 3rd, 2009 @16:23 #

    Oh, this made me cry...

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Siphiwo</a>
    December 7th, 2009 @09:46 #

    Thanks again. This story has been haunting me for a very long time.


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