It is today 30 years since I graduated from the South African Police Force College after six months of blood, sweat, tears and no doubt prayer at times. I recall that day rather well and that I had a feeling that I will never forget the feeling of being a newly promoted constable and not a lowly recruit anymore. A new lot of victims would replace us for basic training and I hoped secretly they would suffer just as much and why not, the previous lot wished the same on us, I am sure.
We practised for weeks beforehand, there was much pride among the hundreds of men and handful of women that day. If the old Police Force bothered to go on parade, the job was done extremely well, as good as any army regiment or guards unit. We even had a PT display consisting of 800 men (yours truly was in it and I remember all 21 moves but last time I tried to demonstrate to my late wife, I collapsed with a red face wheezing and coughing by the third move, yes, I can still hear her laughing and then getting concerned). The remaining lads had a drill display going which was stunning, I saw the pictures afterwards but the reaction from the crowd was clear to hear. Yes, there was pride, a big deal for a man in uniform, even the instructors, really nasty people when working, smiled happily and may I say, proudly, on what they achieved with us.
The day started too slowly, we were in a great hurry for the final parade to begin, and that parade was a grand affair. There must have been over a thousand men and a few dozen women on the parade. I can easily recall the long lines of blue, immaculately clad in dress uniform, shoes shining, buttons shining, the men and women fit in body, there were no fatties on that parade, no way. We looked good, handsome even, I will never look like that again unless dying of a dreaded illness. Very few needed to sit down because the turds (they float in what they talk – politicians) spoke too long, by that time, we knew everything there is to know about not passing out whilst on the parade ground and disgracing your mates, God and the Police Commissioner. We knew a lot of other stuff also, if I remember correctly, we knew about twelve different firearms, riot control, armoured vehicles, first aid, radio communications, crime scenes and something about criminal law (enough to sound clever and get into trouble).
Looking back, and I admitted this in one of my police books, perhaps Mean Streets 1, that we should have known a lot more about civil law and not only criminal law. Many times we would be asked for advice by civilians on how to get a divorce order or how to get a child / husband taken to hospital / institution for treatment (some were drunkards or mental or both) or how to get a protection order or interdict against abuse. We were mostly innocent in such things and the world when we left the parade ground but within a year we would be hardened considerably and with the passing years, completely lose our innocence. I read a comment on one of my police books stating that basic training makes you a “man” and I disagree, the mean streets made you a man, you grew up extremely quickly and you dealt with the very worst of society.
What you don’t find on television with the hugely popular forensic shows or police shows or detective novels (I don’t read nor watch such shows), is the smell of crime and death. I recall finding a suicide case in a car - the car was standing in the hot African sun and the body bloated beyond anything I can describe, bursting out of the clothes, maggots already eating away, and then came the smell when we broke the windows open to get in. Yes, you cannot imagine how wonderful the advice that the experienced police divers around us gave: “Breath through your mouth, mate, never your nose and keep your gasmask on if you can.” Mind, by the second time you experience this type of thing you are not bothered, you have become used to it and where a pistol or firearm is used, make sure you don’t slip on the blood which can be very slippery when fresh enough.
The other day I was reminded that certain smells will bring certain memories to a man, your mom’s cooking, the perfume of the first woman you ever loved and then she broke you heart, and then the smell of “freedom” in townships, burning rubber, tires, and barbecue – the last, well, I am speaking of “necklace” murders and have no doubt, it was murder most foul. The smell of a necklace murder, where a man or woman is accused, often wrongly, of being a police spy or whatever, hacked with pangas (a large type of knife) in the Achilles heel in order not to escape, beaten severely and then a large tire is place around them as a “necklace” pinning their arms. The tire is filled with gasoline and lighted. And so, the victim is burned to death in what may take hours. The eyes, I noted, will burst from the heat generated and roll down the cheeks in thick yellow streams just like the egg yolk you ate this morning. The smell of burning human flesh, alive, will be like marinated pork chops on the grill. Yes, for years I could eat neither eggs nor pork chops. There are many such memories.
I sometimes wish I could go back in time and talk to myself as a warning on what was to come. Certainly I would not mind to have such a fit body again and I would have done things differently if I knew then what I know now but that is foolish thinking, life does not work like that. You cannot go back in the past; you cannot really see the future either although you can be warned by history what to expect but you can grab the moment. Yes, you are able to live this day as if you have no tomorrow. Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of time, take life as it comes and let tomorrow take care of itself, it even says so in the Holy Bible. We worry too much about crap.
Koos Kotze is a former member of the South African Police Force. He served between 1985 and 1991 primarily as a sergeant in the Pretoria Flying Squad. After leaving the Police Force he obtained the law degrees B Iuris & LLB at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and was a practicing commercial law attorney for eight years. He also wrote several books on business, law, counter terrorism and security issues. He is a widower and lives in Bloemfontein, South Africa.