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When the law is to be feared.

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe, I had two maternal uncles who were policemen. Both of them were nothing but loving. They would smile indulgently when they brought their female colleagues to visit and I wore their hats. One of them, Sekuru Chris, was a policeman at the police station near our home and every now and again, l would pass by on my way from school to say "hello" but really to get money for ice-cream. He would never disappoint. I therefore did not understand the concept of parents, mothers in particular, threatening their children "if you do not behave, I will call the police", wherein the child would immediately start behaving well because of fear. What was this fear of the police? They were our friends, were they not?

I was disturbingly naive, much of it to do with living a sheltered childhood. At 17 and 18 while doing my A Levels at a school next to the University of Zimbabwe, I witnessed the terror that the police could unleash, with teargas and batons, on young men and women who were armed only with banners asking for better food or more money. Alas, in the age of social media and more than one news channel, a young person growing up will see nothing fictional about the rogue policemen in Yvonne Owuor's award-winning novel Dust. The age of social media has forced me, as a parent, to be confronted with questions in recent times about the #FeesMustFall attacks on university students, and the Marikana killings by police in South Africa; the beatings and killings of civilians by police at anti-independent Electoral Board Commission (IEBC) protests, and at other public scenes in Kenya.

During the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa, some South African campuses, among them the universities of Cape Town, Western Cape and Johannesburg, became spaces that were unsafe for protesting students. Police, whose children would obviously also become beneficiaries if fees were to fall, were observed arresting students and shoving them into trucks. In enduring images that reminded one of the horror happening to black people in the US, it took young white students to cordon off police from accessing the space with their black colleagues to protect some of the young protesters.

Here it was again, proof, if any were ever needed, that even in an African country, black lives do not matter unless protected by whiteness. Marikana, on the other hand, seemed more like a class war. I remember how my 11-year-old had a haunted look after watching the documentary on the Marikana events, Miners Shot Down. With tears streaming down his face he made two damning statements. One implicated the police, who in South Africa are termed South African Police Services but are clearly a force: "How can they do that to anyone?"

My son's second statement was damning of the governing ANC and its vice president, who will have to work really hard if they are to give him their votes in his first elections in 2024. With the passion only a pre-teen can muster but the sort of passion that one knows shapes someone's perspective, he wanted to know why the government had let it happen. I had no response except to be a little grateful that if he works hard, he may never have to go up the hill like the miners in Marikana, and be gunned down brutally.

Alas, while his black middleclass upbringing may lead only to arrest by police during protests in South Africa, my son may not be entirely protected from extrajudicial slaughter by the police in Kenya where we live.

At the end of June, human rights lawyer Willie Kimani's body was discovered together with those of his client Josephat Mwendwa and taxi driver, Joseph Muiruri. Kimani had dared to be the lawyer who acted for Mwendwa, a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) rider, after he had been shot and detained by police a year ago. It's telling that the death of Kimani, more than those of Mwendwa and Muiruri, has caused outrage in Kenya about extra-judicial killings. More disturbing is that in a dassist society, Kenya still does not know the names of the protesters who were gunned down during the IEBC protests. And all those in Mathare, Mukuru, Kibera, Dunga Unuse, Bangladesh, Moroto, Nyalenda, Manyatta and other poor areas in Kenya who have been victims of extrajudicial killings at the hands of the police.

One hopes that the death of Willie Kimani will conscientise middle-class Kenya and the world to the extrajudicial killings of all those people and that as my friend Salim Chumbii hopes, each lawyer who was touched by Willie's death will take on a case of extrajudicial killing or illegal arrest by police pro bono to ensure justice for all.

When my son asks me why the police are doing this, I cannot explain and I reckon my late loving uncles, who were policemen, would have been hard-pressed to explain as the same brutality to civilians is meted out on a regular basis in Zimbabwe whenever anyone protests against injustices.

Some months back, my son and I walked from the bank in Nairobi's industrial area. A company was having a parade complete with drum majorettes and police escort. Instead of enjoying the sight and waving, as l remember doing at his age, he said, "We should get away from here. There are police here and they may start teargassing us." It was jarring to hear so we crossed the street.

I could not find it in me to tell him, as I believed as a child, that the police are our friends. South Africa, Kenya and many other African countries have police oversight units. Perhaps it is time these organisations got strengthened so that the word "service" is emphasised in police services.

I want to live on a continent where my child and all his friends read about rogue police in works of fiction like Owuor's Dust. Right now, we are far from there.
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Author:Wanner, Zukiswa
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ZIMB
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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