Nathaniel Julies should be enjoying spring today but instead his loved ones will attend his funeral

Nathaniel Julies should have been looking forward to spending what is forecast to be a warm Highveld spring day today – instead his family will be burying him. He was shot and killed by police 10 days ago. His crime? He didn’t answer a police officer’s questions apparently.

That’s what we’ve come to.

Let’s forget for a moment that Nathaniel had Downs Syndrome and probably couldn’t communicate either clearly or confidently. Let’s rather look at the facts that haven’t been contested: there were at least two police officers present. Nathaniel was unarmed.

There’s only question really, what threat did he pose? Sadly, it’s rhetorical. We are South Africans. We know the answer. Many of our police have become a law unto themselves. We know this because the crime scene was apparently tampered with – by police officers afterwards.

Nathaniel was a member of a minority community in a depressed area. Prejudice once again trumped principle. We know this because of the speed with which the initial official reports suggested that Nathaniel was killed in a crossfire between police and gangsters. Eldorado Park has a drug problem, but not a gangster problem. If you’re looking for both, that’s the Cape Flats, not Joburg.

Stereotyping leads to assumptions, assumptions lead to bad practices, bad practices can be fatal, but what can you expect when the general level of our political discourse has been reduced to fake news and identity politics as so many of our politicians pander to the basest populism, stoking race hate, whether white privilege or crass xenophobia, to divert from their own failings?

In the middle of all of this, is a police service that many of us assume no longer serves us, the people, but the interests of an elite that has done nothing to deserve either. In truth though, the South African Police, whether force or service, has always just served the political interests of the day.

We saw this especially during the last five months where hundreds of thousands of people were arrested on petty lockdown infractions, yet serious crime like gender-based violence went unchecked.

It was all supposed to have been so different after 1994, but Marikana, Andries Tatane and countless other aggressions masquerading as law enforcement proved exactly the opposite. The police aren’t solely to blame – they were aided and abetted by a criminally responsible political leadership which actually encouraged them to shoot to kill.

Many of us actually fear the police. Very few people will pull over in a darkened street at night for what purports to be a police vehicle with officers within, most of us will rather drive to the nearest police station or filling station – if we can. Some of us won’t even feel safe to walk to the shop to buy a packet of biscuits any more.

Today, as a community gathers to bid farewell to a young man, who was really still a child, it would be best if the police kept their distance. They need to break the stereotype of what we believe they are.

Because the truth is, we can’t breathe.

Originally published on the 5 September 2020 in the Saturday Star