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Footsoldiers in a social war: the police, crime and inequality in South Africa

What does it mean to declare a 'war on crime' in one of the most unequal societies in the world? And how does contemporary police violence in South Africa serve to maintain the status quo of spatial and economic fragmentation?

With allegations ranging from torture of suspects to involvement in extrajudicial executions, endemic violence has increasingly characterised the reputation of the national South African Police Service (SAPS), and the various supporting Metropolitan departments organised at the city level. A noted hardening of police attitudes towards the citizenry has been typified by an intensification of the force used against demonstrations, which in many cases has included fatal shootings by officers.

This normalisation of police shootings as a tactic reached its grim nadir on 16 August 2012 when, during a strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine, 34 miners were gunned down by a special SAPS unit. This police violence is often politically targeted, with groups that attempt to organise outside of the ANC and state structures, such as the shack dwellers movement Abahalali baseMjondolo and the strike committee at Marikana, being particularly open to attack.

These police actions do not occur in a vacuum. As one of the most unequal and socially fragmented societies in the world, post-apartheid South Africa is intensely spatially and politically exclusionary, as recently argued by Richard Pithouse elsewhere on openDemocracy. While visible and visceral, police violence is part of a wider continuum of governmental strategies to manage and contain this social inequality, and protests of the poor against it.

Fighting crime?

Despite the central role of the police in defending authoritarian and exploitative societal relations, the media and academic debate on their function in contemporary South Africa has skewed towards the idea that police violence is an aberration which distracts from the institutions true role of ‘combatting crime’.

This line is particularly reiterated by the influential Institute for Security Studies, whose researchers are invariably cited in media reports, maintaining that the police have been lead astray by bad policies and that ‘professionalization’ can arrest these developments. Underpinning this is the unquestioned belief that the police are a positive institution in society, whose natural function is to protect the people from crime and harm.

Certainly, high levels of both violent and non-violent crime and a generalised sense of insecurity throughout South African society means the police are often relied upon by the public. However, it is also clear that this is not just perceived to be a law enforcement matter, with government surveys of victims of crime revealing that a majority of interviewed households feel that “social and/or economic development” is “the most effective way of reducing crime and that this should be the focus area for money to be spent on”.

Simultaneously violent crime is spatially concentrated in the poorer parts of the country, a direct product of the living legacy of apartheid's ghettoization and segregation. As journalist Jared Sacks recently observed, rather than the constant government rhetoric of flooding the streets with more police "Dismantling the apartheid city must be the first step in any real crime fighting initiative”.

Indeed we can go further and suggest that the police institution has historically been central in the shaping of such spatial and social division under apartheid rule and that, despite significant differences in mandates and operations, the post-apartheid service is central to the maintenance of inequality and division in present-day South Africa. Rather than simply responding to the consequences of social inequality and serving as the repressive arm of the state, although these roles clearly are central, the police are also constantly engaged in what Mark Neocleous calls the “fabrication” and building of social order

Policing Apartheid, creating division

Prior to the foundation of the national South African Police in 1913, the European colonies which became South Africa were patrolled by a variety of policing bodies. Ranging from Boer commandos to mounted units established by the British these institutions were, as noted by the historian Michael Brogden, primarily military in orientation, acting to ensure white dominance against “the indigenous population and against non-white migrant labour”.

Even by colonial standards this entailed exceptional degrees of violence and coercion. As Brogden argues, by the emergence of the South African Police “in no other British dominion…was policing so nakedly an agency of one particular” group “against its opponents”. Along with the racial oppression of African, Indian and 'Coloured' (mixed race) labour in the bourgeoning cities and towns, state forces also entrenched class domination over the white work force with a series of ferocious police and military clampdowns on strikers in the early decades of the 20th Century. The police were at the centre of a much wider apparatus of legal and spatial controls, such as prison camp like worker compounds, townships and fenced locations. Along with brute force, the police were also agents of wider efforts to install a moral order patterned after the vision of the ruling class. For instance, the police archives of Johannesburg in the 1910’s include officers bemoaning “loafing and passless natives” avoiding incorporation into the labour pool, unrest by white miners and the presence of potentially subversive immigrants from Europe.  

Apart from enforcing segregation this highlights how the police had a major role within the everyday consolidation of capitalism in South Africa. And while extreme, developments within South Africa took place against an international context of elites experimenting with new forms of “spatial militarism” aimed at controlling the threats posed by urban proletariats and colonial populations.

As colonial segregation consolidated into official Apartheid, the police become ever more brutal and powerful. Under the 40 year rule of the National Party the police presided over a dual system: while the white minority experienced civilian policing, the primary goal of policing over the black population was to prevent political resistance, which the state attempted to achieve through the routinizing of torture, murder and terror. The police were also central to the daily administration of Apartheid through the enforcement of pass laws and curfews. An indication of how deeply the police force penetrated into the daily lives of black people is given within the text of the 1955 Freedom Charter which called for a non-racial democratic society in which “The privacy of the house from police raids shall be protected by law”.

Post-apartheid policing: the 'war on crime'

As a result of this legacy, government policy towards the police after the first free elections focused on overhauling the institution from a ‘force’ to a ‘service’. Official rhetoric placed a focus on ‘community’ policing. However, high crime rates and government desire to seem proactive on this meant that by the late 1990’s this type of reform had been superseded by a focus on the ‘war on crime’. In operational practice this meant a resurgence of highly visible clampdowns on ‘problem’ areas, often echoing the military-style deployments which were the operational modus operandi of the Apartheid-era police force.

The ‘war on crime’ has become a permanent feature of post-apartheid policing, with officials citing the dangers of officer’s jobs and a desire by the public to feel safe as the main drivers for the entrenchment of this open-ended conflict. According to the SAPS code of conduct the key point of such a war is to ensure “a safe and secure environment for all people in South Africa”. This would appear to be a reasonable sentiment. However, as Gullierma Seri argues, the seemingly neutral, consensual language of security serves a political role in offering an apparent solution to the puzzle of how to make an  “unequal and fragmented society…governable without calling such fragmentation and inequality into question.” Technocratic security policies are presented as 'solutions' to much deeper social problems.

Ensuring security for world class investment

In the case of South Africa, the official image of security relayed by the government, big business and the media is based on a social order in which the issue of inequality and fragmentation can ultimately be solved at some indefinite point in the future - but only if economic growth can be maintained unimpeded in the present. The underlying premise of this is that while the poor majority may be reasonable in expecting basic services from the government they should be quiescent while waiting for benefits to trickle down from the top of the economy.

This ideology is clearly expressed at a conceptual level in the variety of safety and security documents produced both by the police and other governmental institutions, which pivot around the creation of ‘world class’ environments for investment, work and consumption. A sterling example is provided in the recent National Development Plan which, while criticising police violence, maintains that "When communities do not feel safe and live in fear, the country’s economic development and the people’s wellbeing are affected, hindering their ability to achieve their potential”. The possibility of life having value outside of serving the economy or the nation is precluded.

The highly economistic vision of safety and order that characterises contemporary South Africa has direct operational impacts on the role of the police. The focus on creating productivity means that intensified police operations are constantly deployed to regulate and remake space as part of their broadly defined crime fighting mandate. This can range from regular by-law enforcement against street traders to participation in housing evictions and the forced removal of occupations of unused land by the poor. A noticeable factor of municipal policing in the last few years has been the creation of well-funded ‘anti-land invasion units’  in various cities.

These crime and order enforcement measures often rapidly blur into political repression in the police operations conducted in poor black areas. This is most evident in the aggressive, and many times fatal, crowd control tactics used at local protests which take place throughout the country, as grievances with government turn into small scale revolts and confrontations with the authorities. The stock response of police officials is to claim that by adopting tactics such as blockading roads, protesters have exceeded their democratic rights and veered into “criminality”. Most recently this has been used to justify the fatal shooting of 17 year old Nqobile Nzuza in Durban, which occurred during efforts by local government to evict shack dwellers from Cato Crest.

Time and time again, the state will overplay the ‘violence’ used by protesters while systematically minimising the far more severe violence used by its agents. In the case of the Marikana killings, evidence continues to emerge which indicates that the SAPS intended to use lethal force from the outset, and then attempted to disseminate the claim that their lines were stormed by miners. Such portrayals of the forces of order versus 'the mob' resonates with a wider media and political discourse which regards ‘wild cat’ labour strikes and community militancy as a threat to stability and economic growth, often represented by hyperbolic fears about mass unemployment leading to social chaos. Even in its more progressive variations this reduces the issue of policing to a question of how the service can better manage crowds.

This seems to spectacularly miss the point: the fact that citizens are constantly engaged in standoffs with the state is not a ‘security’ issue but rather a challenge to a socio-economic structure that continues to reproduce poverty and exclusion. In repressing these challenges, the police function to maintain this status quo of extreme inequality, a status quo which historically they have played a central role in building.

Maintaining order

Throughout South African history the police have been the primary muscle for both government and bosses. Certainly the contemporary SAPS is not the same entity as its totalitarian predecessor, and ordinary people at least have legal protection against state violence in the post-Apartheid period, though this is often more in theory than application. However, in the name of security and combatting crime, entrenched state violence and coercion have been rehabilitated under a new veneer. Indeed we should not take the police at its word that “crime” is in fact their primary focus. Rather, the “war on crime” is part of a much wider project of maintaining a social order riddled with spatial, social and economic inequality.

The discourse of fighting crime serves a central political role in legitimating violence and coercion that is deployed to protect property and power, rather than to protect the public from violent crime. Police repression does not occur in an institutional vacuum but is directed towards the maintence of a divided and unequal society, with its exploitative economic relations and a political elite eager to maintain order by criminalising social unrest. The police are central to this wider totality of domination in contemporary South Africa- far from being a neutral institution they are a key weapon of the state, serving as the frontline soldiers of an on-going social war.

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