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FREEDOM DAY | Apartheid-era cop: 'Lockdown brings home how we deprived people's rights'

27 April 2020 - 11:43 By Graeme Hosken
Apartheid-era policeman Philip Heydenrych has been using the lockdown period to reflect on policing in the 1970s and 80s.
Apartheid-era policeman Philip Heydenrych has been using the lockdown period to reflect on policing in the 1970s and 80s.
Image: Supplied

The national lockdown has apartheid-era policeman Philip Heydenrych thinking about the role he played in restricting people’s movements.

“This has made me think a lot about what I did back then, and what I was expected to do. Under apartheid, policing was about enforcement and force,” said the retired policeman who was employed during the 1976 student uprisings and the 1987 state of emergency.

“You were trained to impose laws, not to offer a service like is done now. You were there to enforce laws like that of the dompas and night-time movement rules.”

After a 40-year career, Heydenrych retired in 2016 as a captain at Pretoria’s Wierdabrug police station where he worked as a detective.

He says his career as an enforcer of brutal apartheid laws took a turn after 1994 when he started training detectives before returning to Wierdabrug police station.

“During apartheid we were trained as a force to enforce apartheid rules. That was the only thing we knew and at the time we believed that it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Apartheid-era policeman Philip Heydenrych.
Apartheid-era policeman Philip Heydenrych.
Image: Supplied

“During the 1976 uprisings every police officer was called up to quell the riots. During that time as a police officer, unless you were married, you lived at the police station and the barracks. It was an isolation of sorts, but you knew it was to keep you, as a policeman, safe.

“If you wanted to go out to the shops you needed special permission. We lived like that for months.”

Now the lockdown has made him think.

“It makes you think about what freedom of movement was like during apartheid and how we took away that freedom from people because of their colour.

“Lately I have been thinking about how we enforced the apartheid night-time laws, which were terrifying if you were black, coloured or Indian. We would drive around after 10pm and if we found someone on the street and they were not white we would arrest them.

“We would harass people visiting their wives and girlfriends at their employers’ homes at night. We would be told of ‘trespassers’ and come and arrest them. In Pretoria those we arrested were taken to the Bantu commissioner’s court where they were ‘sorted out’.”

Now that he’s under a lockdown, “which has been designed to protect people, and having my movement restricted”, it has “made me question a lot of things that we did back then”.

“It’s a wake-up call about how special and important the freedom of movement is.”​