In his book, Good Cop Bad Cop, veteran police reservist Andrew Brown tells the story of his family trip from a holiday in the Kruger Park to board a flight at Nelspruit Airport.
As they reached Bushbuckridge, traffic ground to a halt. Vehicles pulled off the road, passengers got out and began milling around.
Metres ahead, a protesting crowd had barricaded the road with concrete pipes and burning tyres.
Brown got out of his car and calmly approached the protesters.
Close by were policemen with shotguns.
Brown noticed that none of the cops were public order police.
They were uniformed officers from the local station, presumably with no crowd control expertise, sent out with nothing but high-powered guns, to control an angry community failed by its government.
Minutes into the conversation with the protesters, Brown learnt that they had not had water for years.
They believed – true or not – that money had been allocated to build a much-needed water pipe for the community, but that the local councillor had appointed his friends to do the work and they had squandered the money.
The community’s pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
The only way to get the government’s attention, they thought, was to block the road until they got water.
I found the next line in Brown’s story quite a compelling symptom of a state that has increasingly relinquished its social responsibility and placed undue pressure on a policing system hopelessly ill-equipped for such.
“I strolled back up the road to the captain,” he writes.
“A middle-aged Afrikaans policeman with a sunburnt face and grey white moustache. He shrugged his shoulders (and said) ‘All I have is a shotgun. I can’t give them water.’ ”
This is an all too familiar South African story.
Protests have become part of our national landscape.
In fact, as I write this column, on the newsroom wall to my right hangs a large, dramatic picture once taken by a colleague during a service delivery protest in Port Elizabeth.
It shows a stocky local policeman trying to clear the road, a shotgun in one hand, a tyre in another and a massive blaze behind him.
On the wall behind me hangs a heart-wrenching picture of a small group of protesters and elderly women passersby (one with a walking stick), who were caught up in the protest, running for cover while shielding each other from smoke and the armed policemen charging at them.
They say journalists should never be emotionally affected by stories. Last week I was. The piercing words of a Port Elizabeth woman whose shack had been demolished that morning got to me.
They brought home the sobering reality of what happens when constructive dialogue between a government and its people breaks down.
“Most of the people here are unemployed, but they have lost the little that they had,” she said as she watched her belongings bundled into a truck and driven off Wells Estate on Thursday.
“People are very angry and instead of talking to us, they sent gun-crazy police who boasted that they will shoot us. We are nothing in their eyes but animals.”
The woman was one of hundreds of people left homeless when their shacks were torn down following a court order which allowed the municipality forcefully to remove them from the land.
The group of about 600 people, including children, had occupied the land and put up shacks in January.
Many of them had been on a housing waiting list for years.
You see, in the early 2000s a housing list of backyard dwellers in the area had been compiled and approved by council.
Together with other beneficiaries from elsewhere in the metro, they were in line to get houses in Wells Estate.
Only in the last decade, as the regional ANC spiralled out of control, so did the corruption in the municipality’s housing department.
Suddenly there were several beneficiary lists going around.
Everyone and their long-lost uncle from Butterworth was in line to get a house. Some got, others did not as the demand rapidly increased, but not so much the supply.
Fast forward to August last year, a new coalition government took over and so far talks with the community on this issue have seemingly been inadequate.
Whose fault that is depends on who you speak to.
Nonetheless, the metro adopted a hard-nosed approach and got a court order in January to evict the families.
It would not tolerate land invaders, it said.
And so began the trouble – violent protests, torching of a truck and blocking of roads.
In fact, the situation is so tense that since the first round of evictions last month, municipal vehicles are reluctant to go into the area with some staff fearing for their safety, according to the local councillor.
The impact of this on the broader community is tragic.
Let me be clear that I do not at all condone the illegal invasion of land.
In fact, allowing people to do so sets a dangerous precedent of lawlessness.
But the reality is that sending trucks and gun-wielding cops to wipe out people’s homes, leaving families on the streets will not make this problem go away. It is brutal. If anything, it is likely to harden the attitudes of those who have already been on the receiving end of government’s corruption and cruelty.
I am aware of the steps taken by the municipality to probe the housing crisis in the area as well as to get a grip on the housing list.
All these efforts must be supported.
But make no mistake, at the heart of finding solutions to this crisis is a much-needed, constant dialogue between the metro and the community.
None can afford to allow arrogance, politics and even criminality to distract from the ultimate goal to get people into houses.
Police, guns and intimidation simply won’t cut it.
But talking just might.
Nwabisa Makunga is The Herald and Weeekend Post deputy editor.