It’s high time we as South Africans realise the police are not on our side. They do not work for us. They do not serve and protect us. And they sure as hell do not prevent crime. If you are a poor black South African, they may also be willing to kill you with impunity, writes Jared Sacks
According to the Independent Complaints Investigative Directorate (IPID), in the 2011/2012 financial year 720 deaths involving the police and 1 722 cases of police brutality were recorded. In the 2012/2013 financial year, 6 728 cases were reported to the IPID, a 218% increase on the previous year. Although these were mostly recorded as assault cases, they also included hundreds of rape and murder charges.
It’s worth noting that 2012/20013 was the year of the Marikana massacre in which police opened fire on and killed 34 striking miners. In 2014, although the year has barely begun, there have been a number of high-profile murders at the hands of police. Jan Rivombo was killed for allegedly challenging Tshwane Metro Police’s attempts to steal his produce. Protester Osia Rahube was killed in Mothutlung in the North West and photographer “Bra Mike” was reportedly murdered for taking pictures of the incident. Then two days later, eyewitnesses claim that Lerato Seema was thrown from a police nyala and died as a result of those injuries. Also during that time, according to the police’s story, Clinton Hoorn “hung himself” in a cell that held 14 other inmates. So far this year, there have been at least 11 cases of unarmed civilians murdered by police during protests.
But what do the statistics and accounts of these incidents really tell us? Not that much, unless we are willing to think about how these incidents relate to one another and, just as importantly, how they are informed by the underlying structural and historical purpose of the police itself.
Apartheid and the historical purpose of the police
During apartheid, the South African Police’s (SAP) primary purpose was not the protection of South Africans from crime but the maintenance of the white supremacist apartheid state. All the SAP’s other responsibilities became subordinate to the political management of blacks and the townships in which they were segregated. This is why the police not only ignored the majority of non-political crimes committed in the townships but in many instances actively contributed to violence and crime as a means of dividing, managing and controlling the population. The term “third force” came to refer to the clandestine apartheid security forces behind the rising violence that pitted the ANC against the IFP.
It is important to understand, therefore, that police were not just there to squash rebellions against the status quo but to actively manage the violence and direct people’s anger inward rather than at the racist system that oppressed them. This isn’t unique to the SAP; it is the motive upon which many policing structures have been founded, not only in fascist and totalitarian regimes but also in colonial societies such as pre-apartheid South Africa and superficially democratic countries such as Britain and the United Sates during the 19th century.
The South African Police Service
Post-1994, the SAP was rebranded as the South African Police Service (SAPS). The logic was pretty simple: the old police had as its focus the maintenance of apartheid. Without apartheid, the police would need to be refounded and its purpose repositioned towards serving and protecting the entire population rather than just white South Africans. In November last year, Amandla! magazine carried an interesting interview with the SAPS’ Major-General Jeremy Vearey in which he explains in detail the repressive purpose of the apartheid-era SAP and compares it with the new orientation of the police since the advent of our constitutional democracy.
Using Marxist analysis, he explains how important this shift was and how necessary it is for the SAPS to go further by helping to build popular power against crime and specifically gangsterism in communities. He says that part of the problem is not that the police have recently been militarised under President Jacob Zuma but that the police were never properly demilitarised in the first place.
But he also explains how in some communities, such as in Mitchell’s Plein, where he does most of his work, the demilitarisation process has taken place and the police there are, to a certain extent, building an ethos of service to and support for the community. Vearey sees the police as a contested terrain: at once both carrying out the will of the state and therefore the interests of the wealthy, while at the same time having the possibility of being accountable to popular community structures such as community policing forums (CPFs). In the interview he critiques his role as a police officer, demanding that police officers do more by being accountable to the communities in which they serve.
The problem with police reform
Vearey can most likely be considered a ‘good cop’. I have little doubt that he is not only well meaning but that he authentically and actively works to change the police service from the inside out. He doesn’t just view the solution in terms of getting rid of a few bad apples; he is trying to overhaul the structure of the police itself. Yet, in many ways, Vearey is clouded by his somewhat idealistic belief that it is possible to make the police accountable to the communities they purport to serve.
In any liberal democracy, where we are forced to ‘democratically’ choose from a group of elites that generally represent the interests (even if sometimes they are conflicting) of the dominant capitalist class, the police exist primarily both to maintain a monopoly on the use of violence and to defend the interests of capital. If the government truly wanted to minimise crime and violence in South Africa, it would realise that the only way to do so is to address political, economic and social inequality head on. Countries with the lowest rates of violent crime are also the countries with the lowest rates of inequality. The police, therefore, have little to do with actually preventing crime. At best, they merely move certain types of economic crime to the most marginalised areas.
As much as one might try to transform the policing structure and use community policing forums to ensure they are accountable from the bottom up, the reality is that the entire structure is dependent on the state, which is in turn accountable to elite interests. No amount of strategic voting (a facade of democracy) will change this: all political parties are, despite populist rhetoric, managed by people who live in the elite circles of society and are funded by – and are accountable to – the capitalist class.
Strong community policing forums do not change the fact that a police officers’ salaries and their jobs are entirely dependent on their superiors, who in turn are accountable to politicians at the top of the chain of hierarchy. Although it is possible under certain circumstances for the police to maintain an aura of ‘service’ to the community, when push comes to shove and the actual interests of the hegemonic order are challenged, we should all be aware of whose side the police are actually on.
Marikana is a case in point. A wildcat strike that could not be controlled by any organisation – not Lonmin, the ANC or even the unions themselves – posed a direct threat to both the monopoly on the use of violence by the state and the negotiated agreement between the ANC and capital. The police were sent to break up the strike and police officers themselves, from top-level generals to basic sergeants and constables, happily obliged. In such instances, Popcru, the dominant police union, will always defend such actions because they necessarily represent the statist basis for the police’s existence.
It is not a mistake that during revolutionary moments the police are staunch defenders of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and, most of all, the authoritarian temperament of the state itself. It is no surprise that during the Egyptian revolution, while even the army began to waiver in its support for former president Hosni Mubarak, the police remained staunchly pro-Mubarak and were the primary force behind the crackdown on protesters, who responded by burning about 90 police stations. Similarly, in Greece, the police force is the biggest recruiting ground for the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The racist and violent nature of the police has been well documented the world over: from China to Brazil and the United States.
The same remains true here in South Africa. In any informal settlement in the country, the minute a group of six-year-olds see the cops entering the community, the first thing they do is drop whatever game they are playing and run away. They are taught from an early age by parents, friends and through their own personal experience that the police – not local thugs living in the community – are the biggest threat to their safety. They are taught to think of the police as their enemy.
The truth is that police are as much a cause of crime and violence as they are combatants against it. Not much has changed since apartheid. In places such as Blikkiesdorp, the massive ‘temporary’ relocation area in Cape Town, the police work merely to ensure that they get a piece of the profits from dealing drug. Arrests come when they do not get their share because a rogue drug dealer refuses to pay them off. In a sense, police are part and parcel of the drug economy – not only in Blikkiesdorp and on the Cape Flats, but throughout the country.
As a consequence of the police’s role in organising and maintaining crime, desperate South Africans have resorted to vigilantism. Often, if someone commits a crime and is caught by the local community, they won’t be turned over to the police but dealt with by the community members themselves. Sometimes the result is horrific: alleged thieves have been beaten, necklaced and killed in the most brutal ways.
The problem with condemnations of vigilante justice
Vigilante justice, and other forms of due process that are alternatives to the official justice system, exist because of the failure of the police and the justice system to achieve even the most basic levels of safety and security in (mostly poor, black) communities. Rather than an expression of violence and intolerance on the part of residents, vigilantism is a desperate attempt by people to regain control the little property they have, as well as of their physical bodies and their lives. It should be seen as a practical response to the complete failure of the law in liberal democracies such as South Africa.
Mexico, for instance, has seen a massive rise in what has been called the “citizen police” in the past decade. Starting out in the small state of Guerrero, these armed squads arose as a response not only to the drug war but also to government corruption and police complicity in organised crime. In some instances, these groups have gone as far as taking over entire towns and arresting corrupt police commanders. Recently, the town of Xaltianguis just outside Acapulco founded the first all-female citizen police, and this has spread to other towns in the region. In places where ‘vigilante’ police are strongest, there have been massive drops in crime, murders, drug trafficking and even government corruption.
This is not to say that mob and vigilante justice are good, just and fair alternatives – even though in such communities they operates as the only effective deterrent for crime. There are other forms of alternative policing that help people regain control over their communities, ensuring justice and even seeking to rehabilitate offenders.
Also in Mexico, for instance, we see some more radical and just alternatives. The Zapatistas, a former revolutionary army and now social movement, have been able, in their autonomous towns and villages, to create an alternative, ‘restorative’ justice system accountable to the people themselves. This system, working in conjunction with a radically participatory form of government called the Councils of Good Governance, is run locally in Zapatista villages and focuses on investigating, communicating, educating and (if some sort of punishment is necessary) mediating agreements between offenders and victims. Here, penalties usually involve public apologies, fines and compensation for the affected group.
The popular policing system created by the Zapatistas is different from the one Vearey advocates. Vearey’s seeks to build community structures operating in alliance with the police but, ultimately, accountable to the police service, not a replacement for it. But these structures easily become corrupted. The Zapatistas model replaces the police and formalises community policing forums, creating a strict system of community control over the justice system thereby making the Mexican federal police and justice system entirely redundant.
Alternatives are necessary
The situation in South Africa is untenable. While the people living in SA may not yet be ready to force through radical change on a large scale, there is a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo among most of the poor. In the previous elections, almost 70% of the voting-age population either did not vote for the ruling party or, more likely, did not vote at all. Much of this has to do with the perception that voting might change a few political faces but will do little to change their lives.
The SAPS, along with the various metro police forces, lacks legitimacy. When crimes happen in poor communities, people rarely call the police because at best they won’t help; at worst, they will further victimise the victims. Communities also know that the police are often criminals themselves, that they are drug traffickers, that they are deeply involved in organised crime syndicates, and that they are often rapists and murderers. If you ask them how they feel about the police, few will mince their words and some of them might even tell you: fok die polisie. It’s not merely a part of US gangster rap lingo (NWA made the saying famous with their song Fuck the Police), it’s part of popular urban culture as a whole.
Reforming the police service won’t do much to change the fact that police are not only corrupt but work to maintain the interests of the dominant classes. Rather, we need real alternatives that put the power back in the hands of people and their communities. Because when South Africans do eventually take to the streets on a large scale, they will need powerful, democratic and radical institutions, such as those the Zapatistas are building, to counter the violence.
Photo Credit: A still image from cellphone footage shows a taxi driver being dragged behind a police vehicle in Daveyton. The Mozambican national was later found dead in his police cell.