South Africa's black police: focus of black civilian hostility. Called on to enforce the law, they encounter threats, violence, in a job where opportunity seemed to beckon

South Africa's black policemen, especially those who live in the ravaged black townships near Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, must be wondering about their jobs -- jobs that once seemed to promise status and security. In some townships not one black policeman's home is still standing and police families have been evacuated to ``secure locations'' in white areas.

In the eastern Cape the homes of five more black policemen were firebombed this weekend, bringing to more than 100 the number in black townships that have been set on fire in the past six months.

``They are puppets of the system,'' say black radicals contemptuously of black police.

``Their job is to maintain law and order,'' says a spokesman for the Ministry of Law and Order. And he claims: ``Black policemen are certainly not there to prop up apartheid'' (the government system of enforced racial segregation).

``They are arrogant. They've got guns. When there's a crisis, they are even worse than the white cops,'' says a black journalist who has lived all his life in the huge black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg.

Another black journalist reporting from Uitenhage writes: The people ``detest'' the police presence.

His white colleague says that consciously or unconsciously, the police generally are ``provocative.''

South Africa's police force numbers approximately 44,000 people -- about half of them black. The intention is to increase the size of the force to 68,000 when the economy allows.

It is becoming increasingly integrated and the conditions of service are ``virtually the same'' for all races, according to the press liaison officer for the Ministry of Law and Order, Col. Leon Mellett.

The ministry is reticent about the actual salaries it pays, but it is understood reliably that the starting salary for a constable more or less straight out of school is the equivalent of about $360 a month. This compares favorably with the starting pay of clerks but is much more than many unskilled blacks in South Africa could hope to earn.

Consequently the police force is able to boast that there are ``tremendous numbers of blacks keen to join up.''

Qualifications for recruits of all races are ``exactly the same'' and the outlook for advancement for blacks appears to be improving, too. At one time there were no black officers. Now there are blacks who have reached the rank of full colonel, says Colonel Mellett. And blacks are now in complete charge of some even very populous police districts.

The pay and other benefits for more senior ranks of all races are ``exactly the same,'' says Mellett. He asserts that ``90 percent'' of the people in the black community support the police and that the black community generally has a ``great respect'' for the police.

The attacks on the homes and families of police officers and various community councilors have been engineered by ``small groups of radicals'' who are trying to ``discredit the police'' and ``break police morale,'' he says. This is to be expected in a ``revolutionary type of climate.''

It is difficult to obtain an objective black view of the police. The Soweto journalist says: ``Look, sometimes I can pity them. They are being thrust into a very difficult situation.''

`` But,'' he adds,`` they are arrogant and of course they are perceived to be representatives of the system. They act like the government. Nobody regards them as protectors.''

And an elderly and very conservative black clerk says that many years ago black attitudes to the black police were ``quite positive.''

But he adds: ``Now the police always seem to be looking for somebody to arrest. They are not considered to be just keeping law and order.''

One of the main problems is that police are obliged to enforce many ``political'' laws that apply only to blacks.

The most contentious are the laws regulating the movement of blacks from one area to another, the so-called ``influx control laws'' designed to keep blacks from the rural areas from ``flooding'' the cities.

All blacks have to carry official papers showing where they are entitled to live or work and the police can demand to see papers at any time.

Last year 163,862 black people were arrested under these laws -- the equivalent of one person every three minutes.

Many observers believe it is increasing black anger at laws like these that is boiling over into personal vendettas against individual black policemen in the black townships.

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