[intro]When we are law abiding citizens minding our own business we assume police action will pass us by. But the writer was dozily enjoying the soporific touch of a hairdresser the one minute and the next she was handcuffed, thrown into the back of a police van. It’s ever so easy for a perfect day to take a wrong turn.[/intro]

I’ve had to make many decisions in my life to date but I am most irritated by the one I had to make at that moment. Do I climb behind the back of the police van like a convicted criminal or do I first adjust the ‘piece of jewellery’ I’ve just acquired and then make the climb?

I am holidaying in a small rural town that borders the Eastern Cape and the Free State as well as Lesotho. The African sun offers welcome warmth and my holiday mood is in full swing.

Earlier in the day, I make my way out of my parent’s house and head to town by foot. It will take me a good 15 minutes to reach my destination.

Nothing about my outfit reveals my actual age. Not the size 5 brown sandals, the floral print summer dress that I got in the kids clothing department nor the green vintage handbag that I am clutching. I could easily pass as a teenager, rushing to run errands before the shops are too crowded and I find myself stuck in the ant colony queues.
But I am really on my way to combine my thin dreadlocks at a Rastafarai vendor stall downtown.

The ‘stand’, as we call it, is actually a stall that was meant to be a resting area for commuters using the taxi rank that is dominated by vendors. Despite being uncomfortable at the thought of strangers passing by while I have my hair done in one of busiest areas of my small town, I like it here. Finding stylists for my hair is not as easy. My younger sister has recommended this spot to me.

Your Head Is Big

“They are really good at what they do, you will just be there for a long time because your hair is long and your head is big,” she teases.

I am not so sure about the big head joke, I tell myself as I draw closer to my destination.

The melody of competing taxi hooters, women chatting over matching merchandise, the rustle of grocery bags, the banging of big suitcases. Sounds coming at me from all directions.

After spotting the Rastafarai stall, I dodge the taxi’s rushing out of the fuel station and cross the road. I am met with a swift welcoming gesture. Soon two stylists begin “blessing my hair”. Pleased by the first strand of hair presented to me I allow myself to relax despite my previous reservations. The sounds of reggae are playing in the background and I am at peace. All is well until Babylon decides it’s time to interrupt my perfect day.

The police begin searching all around the stall. I am vaguely aware of them, Later I am told that two bags of dagga were found. I find this out at the police station while I am making a witness statement. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I pay little attention to the police’s minor disturbance. People are doing hair magic with me. After what seems to be a long exchange of words between the cops and the person in charge of the stall, I am brought back to reality very sharply.

“You will have to cuff her too,” a voice says.

“Can’t I just come along with you? I was just knitting my hair. I had no knowledge of this.”

Instantly I start practising calm response in my head. Am I being arrested for possession here?

“Mbophe naye,” the voice repeats, this time sounding more hostile.

Feeling anxious, I move my arms away from my sides and hand over two very slim wrists to a police woman. I am met by the chill of handcuffs. I have no experience of how these things work. I’ve mostly seen this done in movies only. But instead of the policewoman adjusting the cuffs to fit onto my 10 cm wrists, she leaves them loose.

“Has she done it so many times that she thinks that all our wrists fit in?” I say to nobody in particular.

I perform the tricky manoeuvre of grabbing my belongings whilst holding my hands up so that the cuffs do not fall off. Arrest does not suit me, says my mischievous side.

But then I am swept up in a wave of irritation.

And My Hair?

“What about my hair?”

Nobody listens. The cop directs me to a van. Only now I realise the commotion that has been playing itself out around me while I almost fell asleep with soothing hair therapy. There is a semi-circle of curious onlookers who are staring at me.

I hear my name being shouted out by someone in the crowd. Next challenge is climbing into the van. Decision time: Do I climb into the back of the police van like a convicted criminal. And do I first adjust my piece of jewellery and then make the climb?

“Screw these cuffs, and my wrists for being small,” I think, as I allow them to fall into the van and grant myself a bit of temporary freedom.

If I don’t lose the cuffs I will not be able to keep my dress from riding up and exposing my underwear or worse…
Dress held down I climb into the van. Afterwards I adjust my position and then half-heartedly hold out my hands for her to cuff me all over again. This time, after making a comment on my wrists, she adjusts them so that they are now very secure.

Soon there are new things to worry about. The filth of the van, the horrendous odour of Lord knows what, the uncomfortable steel seat that rubs on my upper leg and the bumps as the driver makes his way across crowded streets to the police station.

Slowly it sinks in. I’ve been arrested and I have no idea why. Depression. Fear.

At the police station they want a statement. What do I know apart from the hairstyle I was aiming for and the discomfort of giant steel handcuffs.

It does not take me long to lose the horrendous cuffs and to escape from the claustrophobia of an overflowing charge office. Outside I have a new appreciation for the feel of the African sun on my skin and the fresh breeze that plays with my half-done hair.

It could so easily have ended differently. For many people an encounter with the police does not end well even if they are innocent. It’s odd now that my petite arms and the twists in my hair often remind me of how easy it could be to land with a crash on the wrong side of justice. How the cold steel on my skin still seems to be there sometimes.

I was not physically hurt that day but the fear has taken a while to subside. What will it take, I wonder, for us to build a police force that we trust, that makes us feel safe.