What Are Our Rights When Civil Servants Stop Being Civil

In December 2020, motoring journalist Marius Roberts was pulled over by a Metro police officer – in an unmarked car – in Johannesburg. Roberts asked the natural and obvious question we would all surely ask in the same situation: “Why have you pulled me over?”

This seemingly innocent question kick-started a 15-minute “discussion” during which time Roberts was continually interrupted as he struggled to ascertain what he’d done wrong. It eventually transpired that he wasn’t displaying a trade plate, but this ended up becoming a secondary issue to the fact that he dared request a reason for being pulled over in the first place.

Describing the incident on his YouTube channel, Roberts said, “Trust is not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of the cops. There are so many well-documented stories of criminality, intimidation, bribery and corruption.”

Sadly, this is not an isolated story.

How many of us can say, when we get pulled over or stopped at a roadblock, that we are filled with confidence we’ll be treated civilly and with respect?

A big part of the problem is, we don’t always know our legal rights in these kinds of situations. What are the police legally allowed to do, and what can we actually do if a traffic officer abuses their position or oversteps the limits of their authority?

Johan Jonck, from Arrive Alive, has this advice: “Remain calm and accept that there will always be bad apples among all professionals. Conflict can only continue to exist with participation, so don’t aggravate the situation by being too confrontational or rude, using profanity or making rude gestures.”

He applauded Roberts for keeping calm in a “challenging situation.”

While I do agree that, for our own safety, it’s undoubtedly the wisest course of action not to antagonise a police officer – no matter how aggrieved we may be feeling – there is a significant caveat to this:

If we continue to accept poor service, harassment, abuse and intimidation from public officials – not just police and traffic officials – then surely this kind of behaviour will become the norm? Any hope of ever raising standards can simply be abandoned.

I do understand that it’s one thing to become frustrated by poor service and a couldn’t-care-less attitude of someone at Home Affairs, for example, but it becomes a very different scenario when the person dishing out the behaviour is a member of law enforcement, or in another position of authority.

In this situation, things can go sideways very quickly, so it’s important to know your rights. If you understand what a police or traffic officer can or can’t legally do, and what you do or don’t have the right to do, it can really help diffuse a potentially explosive situation.

Firstly, the National Road Traffic Act provides for traffic officers to be identifiable, and as a member of the public you are entitled to ask for identification or a certificate of appointment. Any officer who can’t or won’t provide this is in violation of the Criminal Procedure Act.

Secondly, police officers are required to have their names displayed on their uniforms. If they don’t, you are legally allowed to ask them for their name.

Thirdly, members of the SAPS do have the right to pull you over and search your car, but if you feel unsafe doing so immediately, you are within your rights to follow the “blue light protocol”:

 

  • Slow down and put your hazard lights on
  • Indicate to the police vehicle to follow you
  • Drive at no faster than 40km/hr to the nearest police station (or a public space with CCTV coverage, such as a service station forecourt)
  • Pull over and stop

 

However, these “random pullovers” are only legal if the law enforcement officials believe you may have been involved in the commission of a crime.

I feel I must add in a word of caution at this point that echoes the earlier advice of Johan Jonck. No matter how you feel about being pulled over, and even if you feel the officer concerned is not behaving appropriately, do not under any circumstances use verbal or physical abuse, as this could result in arrest. So, no racial slurs, threats, crude gestures or physical contact.

If you feel you have not been treated fairly, make sure you take note of the officer’s name and file an official complaint afterwards.

At the end of the day, it bears remembering that, while there are always going to be those individuals who get some kind of sick kick out of making people miserable, much of the poor service we receive from certain civil servants stems from a desperate lack of training.

But does this mean we should make provision for inefficient and blatantly rude public servants?

Many government officials continue to receive inflated salaries regardless of the fact that their performance is grossly below par – and no one is doing anything to rectify this. In the private sector, they wouldn’t last five minutes, but in the relatively protected enclave of civil service, poor performance is never going to come under the microscope unless we, the public, take a stand.

There’s no doubt standards have to be raised, and we have to make enough noise to make sure this happens.