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Keeping SA Safe -- The Real Nightriders

9 June 2007

By Tamar Kahn

In a country where crime is a major problem, two policemen challenge the view that law enforcers are not doing enough.

The temperature is rapidly sliding towards zero, as Insp Theuns Grobler and Const Gert van Tonder head out on their all-night patrol of Witbank. Bitter though the night is, the heater in their BMW is switched off. Heat makes them sleepy. The time is 6.05pm. Both men have been married a year, and both know their wives will sleep little tonight.

It's month-end and a weekend to boot, a guaranteed recipe for trouble as the town splurges on drink and drugs - easy catalysts for wife-battering, traffic accidents and house-breaking.

That's on top of the ever- present risk of a car hijacking or a cash-in-transit heist, since Witbank, lying at the intersection of two of the main highways into Johannesburg and Pretoria, is a favoured gateway for drugs and hot money moving between SA, Mozambique and Swaziland. And although their wives don't know it, tonight's patrol carries extra danger as the Highveld Flying Squad is expecting "information" from detectives for a drug bust.

The car radio is tuned to Jacaranda FM as the cops head out along the N4 to the Middelburg Toll Plaza, and take a slow turn through the petrol stations on either side of the highway. The ATMs in the rest stops provide easy pickings for criminals, but tonight the security guards on the premises signal all is quiet and the cops purr back to town under the cold, high sky.

It's 6.57pm when they spot a black Mazda bakkie without a number plate squealing out of an intersection. Siren on, they rapidly weave through the heavy Friday evening traffic and pull the car over.

Van Tonder stands behind the door of the patrol car covering Grobler with an R5- assault rifle as his buddy bellows at the young, white driver to get out of the vehicle and put his hands where he can see them.

The jumpy youth protests his innocence, claiming he took his plates off for a motor-cross race. Grobler is sceptical, but the kid's registration papers are in order, so the cops let him off with a terse warning before heading back to the police station for evening parade.

There the men officially clock in, report any injuries or illness, and get an update on the evening's plans. First task tonight is to assist detectives who are hoping to trap a house-breaking suspect, using his arrested accomplice as bait. The cops are fired up as they gather in the icy parking lot outside the charge office, arguing loudly about how best to set their trap. They split up, the flying squad temporarily back on street patrol and the detectives heading off with their cuffed bait to reconnoitre a hostel in Vosman where the accomplice's partner in crime is believed to be hiding.

Grobler and Van Tonder stop at a garage to buy airtime for their one official cellphone. Grobler is the shift commander, so it's in his charge. He's just finished punching in the code for the precious minutes, when the detectives call. Their "bait" is getting jumpy, they say, time to act. Grobler points the car towards Vosman, and floors the accelerator. It's 7.58pm.

"Skoon, skoon, skoon," says Van Tonder, guiding Grobler through red traffic lights and intersections, as the needle on the dashboard swings past 260km/h. He's been a cop for five years, Grobler for 13, both hooked on the action.

"From a small kid, I looked at movies like TJ Hooker (the American television police drama starring William Shatner), and knew it's what I wanted to be," says Grobler.

The cops pull into the narrow dusty streets of Vosman, and join their colleagues a few blocks from the target's room in the sprawling hostel grounds, home to thousands of poor mine workers and illegal immigrants. Coal smoke hangs thick in the night air, lit orange by the sodium street lamps, as they huddle close and instruct the bait to call his accomplice.

Trap set, the cops slip two by two around the back of the hostel, their blue uniforms melting into the shadows, while the detectives press ahead with their bait, planning to signal the cops when they are outside the target's room.

It's 8.12pm. The detectives are taking too long, something's not right, Grobler worries. He can't communicate with them because the only official cellphone that has airtime is the one in his pocket. Cursing the police department's parsimony, the cops slide into an empty building and anxiously keep watch for the detectives and the suspect, hoping to spot them driving past. Suddenly they see their bakkie driving back towards the patrol cars.

The cops pull back, and race to their vehicles. Confusion reigns as they argue over whether to storm the hostel.

A policeman jumps into the back of the open bakkie, his bulk silhouetted against the faint streetlight, rifle pointed to the sky, impatient to be off. But the captain in charge of the operation decides it's too risky to go back in, as the last call to the target suggested he'd rumbled them. They'll try again when the men in the hostels are sleeping. "The night is still a baby," he says, ordering the men back on patrol.

Grobler and Van Tonder shrug at the letdown and head back to their car.

The orange lights on the dashboard glow 9.14pm when the cops get a call from radio control about a suspicious vehicle in Reyno Ridge. They hurtle across town, siren blaring, to find a car idling on dirt road in the scrubby grassland opposite the posh houses. But it's a false alarm.

"A lady of the night," Van Tonder prints in his log book. "Stupid. This is a big hijacking spot, close to the highway," he mutters, as Grobler drives on.

9.40pm. The Witbank police station calls for back-up to handle drunk revellers outside the "Why not sports bar" shebeen in Extension 8. A police reservist has spotted four young men partying in a white Opel Kadet. Boozing in public like this is illegal.

"We didn't drink, we were just coming to buy … it's for our friends," a neatly dressed young man protests.

Van Tonder ignores him, smashing the youngsters' half-empty bottles of booze on the side of the road, and tipping the contents of the unopened beer quarts into the dirt.

Grobler steps in. "You are drunk in public," he says quietly to the unhappy revellers, "and you", turning to the driver, "are driving under the influence. Go home."

"Thankshthanksthanksh," slurs the drunkest young man, as his friends push him back into the car and drive off.

"Enjoy your evening," waves Grobler.

It's 10.35pm, and the cops have just stoked their energy levels with cokes and Bioplus, when they get the long-anticipated call to meet their colleagues for a detailed briefing on the night's drug bust.

Van Tonder silences the radio, and slips in Def Leppard's Action. "Jus' a bit of keep-us-awake music," he grins, as Grobler hits the accelerator.

10.40pm. The cops gather in the parking lot of the Rendezvous Roadhouse café, joined by detectives from the crime intelligence gathering unit and the drug task team. Van Tonder opens the boot, and weighs up his "key to the city", a sledgehammer that barely fits in the car.

The men don battle jackets, knee and elbow guards.

And then they wait. Their breath hangs suspended in the air as they stamp their feet, drink coffee and Milo, call their wives, and trade war stories. Their laughter is brittle, there's a jittery edge to the banter.

"You never know when you are getting an ambush or a set-up," says Grobler. "But this is the most satisfying job, when you work information. You wait, wait, wait, but at the end of the night, you've got the guys, made arrests, and it's all worthwhile. Especially when you see their faces."

The tight-knit, elite Highveld Flying Squad has not lost a single member since it was formed in 2001. Their training is rigorous, so tough that to date only one woman has made the physical grade, and they trust their buddies implicitly. In many ways, being on duty is psychologically easier than being off.

"The only time I relax is when I'm with the people at work, because I know I don't need to look after them. Our wives is always complaining we look around too much, but outside you are on your own, you don't know who's following you," says Van Tonder. Both men have been on criminals' hit lists more than once, and both have made sure that their wives have the cellphone numbers of their colleagues in case of trouble back home.

Like most South African policemen, they take their official weapons with them when they go off shift. Grobler sleeps with his pistol under his pillow, a habit he picked up while working in the VIP protection unit. Van Tonder, on the other hand, puts his in a safe. "I have a little anger management problem," he grins.

The men change the subject quickly when asked about how they cope with the violence and trauma they witness, yet they readily concede that police work takes its toll on a man's mental health.

A few months ago, a policeman from the main police station went berserk in the barracks, threatening to shoot himself, a not uncommon occurrence among overwrought members of the South African Police Service, which saw about 45 suicides in the second half of last year. Cops also regularly lose their colleagues to violence, both on and off duty, as they fall victim to criminals and traffic accidents.

"The type of work we are doing, there's a lot of stress. Some guys just can't handle it, especially when things is going wrong in their personal life and the wife is giving you what what," says Grobler. But so far, he and his team have proven resilient.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is the fact that their captain, "Grobbies" Grobler, insists on the group debriefing after major incidents, in line with police policy. The squad's only woman, 23-year-old Gloria Mokoena, says she's not ashamed to say she regularly visits a psychologist. Her ease at talking about the care she takes of her mental health is rare in the closed, machismo-infused world of the flying squad.

The wives and girlfriends of policemen often complain that they won't talk about their work, says Grobler's wife Dora, who works as a procurement clerk in the Witbank police station. "They prefer to post-mortem among themselves," she says wryly.

It's approaching midnight when the men finally get the signal to set off for the matchbox houses of Klarinet. One man runs around the back of an alleged drug dealer's house, the rest fan out around his doorway. A hush descends.

"Police! Wake Up! Open up! Open up!" bellows a detective.


And then, in a single crash, Van Tonder breaks down the door.

Ike, a young Nigerian out on bail for allegedly dealing crack cocaine, leaps up from his bed, incongruously dressed in pale blue pyjamas with a lavender donkey tobogganing across his chest. He stands mournfully by his bed, silently eyeing the detectives turning over his clothes and CDs, rummaging through his fridge and the toilet cistern. Even the tiny tins of Zambuk salve on top of his television set are probed.

"What's the matter with you?" shouts a detective.

"I'm sick," he mutters, clutching a blue scarf round his neck.

"You've gone f**king skinny. What is it? AIDS?"

"Just sick," he mumbles.

"Where's your money come from Ike?" says a detective, holding up a brand new DVD.

"I work in a saloon," he says.

"Bullshit," comes the response.

"Where's your passport?" he asks.

"At the police station …"

"There's f**k all here. Niks," say the detectives, and leave for the next bust.

Ike runs after the retreating cars in his slippers, complaining that one of the men has taken his passport. "Ja well, that's not my problem," Van Tonder shouts through the window. "It's crap, they always say that," he shrugs, as the men head off to Jellicoe Street.

The clock shows 1.45am as Van Tonder smashes down another suspected drug dealer's front door. The surprised man falls out of bed and huddles in a foetal position on the floor, protesting his innocence in a voice like a squeaky toy.

Here the detectives' search yields tiny pale blue squares of plastic cut from shopping bags in the garbage; they are used to package drugs, but in and of themselves they are hardly incriminating. In a hole in the garden wall they find a heroin "pinch", a smidgen of the dirty white powder twisted into a piece of gray plastic.

But they can't prove it belongs to the suspected drug dealer. Increasingly frustrated, they hunt for his stash, poking sticks into the sand of the plantless flowerbeds, searching under bushes, in the trees, and through the scrappy grass. Nothing.

In the suspect's room, all they find is baby teething powder, a common cutting agent. The man doesn't have a baby, and they are pretty sure of the powder's use, but once again, they can pin nothing to the man.

The cops give up, leaving the blinking man to right his scattered belongings. They head out to Vosman once more for a second attempt at nabbing the housebreaking suspect. This time the men storm the hostel. Half the cops run round the back of the hostel, half take the front. Down goes the door, splintering on the filthy concrete floor.

But they're too late. All they find is a cellphone lying on the floor beside a still-warm bed. Another anticlimax.

The "info" is over for the night. Grobler and Van Tonder head out to Witbank's casino with the rest of the flying squad. This is a regular stop, a chance to drink strong coffee and trade information with the casino's security manager. Tonight Eddie Mabuza has bad news.

"We had two cops stealing a man's wallet in here last night," he says quietly. "It's all on camera." The flying squad cops are agitated, going over the story again and again, wanting assurances that Mabuza can present the evidence to nail the crooked cops.

The temperature is below zero as the men leave the frenetic lights and noise of the casino to return to their patrol.

They talk little now, their edginess blunted. Action this late at night is unusual.

But at 3.43am, they get a call for a housebreaking in progress on Hendrik Vervoed Street.

There's almost a sense of relief as they put on the siren and race across town.

An old lady in a floppy beige felt hat and red plaid dressing gown looms out of the darkness at her front gate, saying her dog has gone beserk, and she thinks there are intruders in the building site next door.

The cops are tense as they sweep the pitch black shell next door, but the place is empty, and they find no sign of illicit activity. They reassure the old woman and then head back onto the streets.

At 5am their shift finally ends.

Fuel tank filled, equipment returned, and paperwork laboriously completed, the men head home.

Despite the caffeine-charged, adrenalin-laced night, Van Tonder easily switches off. Once in his bedroom, he throws off his uniform, slides into the warmth behind his wife's still back, and is asleep within minutes.

Grobler takes a little longer to shift gears.

He pets his Staffie, sips a Coke while he watches a little television.

Then he silently undresses in the set's cold glow before slipping into bed beside his sleeping wife.

This story is part of an occasional series on mental health and the police, supported by a fellowship from the US-based Carter Centre in Atlanta. If you have comments, or a story of your own to tell, contact the reporter at

Used with permission from Business Day. Copyright 2007.

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