I was asleep, quite likely snoring, and awoke to a metro police vehicle blanketing the bridge and its immediate surrounds with rotating, repetitive blue lights. I had, half awake, heard what I imagined to be sirens moments earlier, but had dismissed it as my mind playing tricks on me. There is the crackling of a radio, that stupid-sounding Alpha Mike Tango talk over a two-way. I am accosted by four police officers, two youngish women and two mature males. A beam is directed onto my face and then sweeps over my meagre possessions: nail clippers, a comb and a plastic bag with a change of clothes. No radio, no letters.

Wake up. You cannot sleep here. Or live here. You are violating City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Council bylaws.

Out of interest, I answer, with composure and humility: What statutes have I contravened? Specifically.

All four laugh.

Well, sir, we should, by right, be arresting you without extended explanations. Sergeant Mazibuko, please enlighten our fellow citizen here as to what he is doing wrong.

Sergeant Mazibuko is one of the younger policewomen, wears prescription glasses and is a little chubby, but perfectly pleasant. Her confidence is that of one still under training and observation, for some statements around statutory laws come across as hesitant, an exploration of the facts.

You see, ntate, she says, loitering is not encouraged by the authorities. You are, if my memory serves, also not allowed to make open fires that could not only threaten public infrastructure, but result in rampant fire – which those authorities will consider arson, unintended or not. You have a cardboard mattress and newspapers here, heaps of debris and that is considered littering. May I have a look at your identification papers?

I don’t have any. But I can confirm that I am a South African citizen.

By birth? asks the other woman, big head, tall and sinewy, clearly enjoying wielding authority.

I answer: By birth, yes, since it is not possible to be a citizen by death. What would be the point of that, being South African by death?


Then: You have a point, says one of the older male officers, Sergeant Viljoen, too relaxed for my liking, maybe a little lazy. One cannot be South African by death, can one? But because you are still alive, you have a citizen’s obligation to prove you are not an illegal immigrant by producing your South African identity document, as issued by your other countrymen and -women across the Republic, as proof of being both alive and South African by birth. We would, naturally, not be speaking to you if you had died… Such a conversation would be had with your next of kin who would still be required, by law, to produce official confirmation that you are headed for the furnace or the cemetery – a death certificate, for instance.

Quite right, Viljoen, says the other male officer, a giant with a lion’s roar for a voice. Listen, Morena, I can hear from your tongue that you are South African. I have, as Commanding Officer, made a decision to enforce the bylaws without arresting you. You have to come with us, though – though, I repeat, this is not an arrest – to a place of safety downtown.

A shelter, you mean?

Well, either a shelter or we book you at the nearest police station. John Vorster Square or Hillbrow. Choose maikhethela – the choice is yours.

Okay, take me downtown then.

My cardboard bed is dismantled and my newspapers confiscated. I am led to the back of the police van, not handcuffed, and my bed, now meaningless and mangled, is tossed in with me. Like a caged animal, I struggle to maintain my balance as the police van crisscrosses the cityscape, momentarily sounding the siren to warn reckless drivers and pedestrians that the law still exists. I expected to be driven straight to wherever they are supposedly taking me, but it turns out the officers still have considerable police work to do. Stopping and searching a blue BMW on Ameshoff Street in Braamfontein. Disarming (small pocket knife) and slapping around a drunk youth on the corner of Kotze and Claim in Hillbrow. A pitstop at the McDonald’s off Kingsway Drive in Melville. Shutting down a house party in Bertrams and threatening intoxicated patrons with immediate arrest. Tailing, stopping and searching a white C-Class Mercedes with Northern Cape plates suspected of being stolen, and laughing and snapping early-hours selfies with the Mercedes occupants who turn out to be soapie stars. I am sleep deprived and my buttocks are numb from sitting hunched in the back of the metro police van. Thirsty and hungry too. Daybreak arrives with the police attending to an accident scene on the corner of Empire and Jan Smuts, before I am finally driven downtown to Little Paradise sanctuary in central Johannesburg, right in the belly of the beast.


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Excerpt from REVOLUTIONARIES’ HOUSE published by Jacana Media. Copyright © 2024 by Nthikeng Mohlele.