Words for the music.
1 November 2014 08:30 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

The dark side of the Force

  • Paul Berkowitz
South Africa’s policing philosophy has shifted from helping the most vulnerable in society to focusing on being able to kill more professionally. The police have become just another gang, and the one with all the firepower.

My friend gave her driver’s license to the policewoman, who asked her to unlock the car doors. She asked my friend, “Where are you from? Where are you going to?” while she opened the cubby-hole on the passenger side and, “Where were you born? Primary school? High school?” as she emptied out my friend’s toiletries.

The policewoman continued her search on the back seat of the car, scanning the contents of my friend’s purse while her colleague complimented my friend on how fit she was and expressed his excitement at her regular gym attendance. His interrogation of my friend was more esoteric than his colleague’s: “Where do you live? Do you live alone?”

For reasons known only to her, the policewoman addressed my friend as “Ntate” (Mr). “Do you have a South African ID, ntate?” while rummaging through her make-up bag. “Why do you not have your ID on you, ntate?”

All this time, my friend has not been told why she had been pulled over, what she was suspected of doing or not doing. My friend did her best to remain calm in the face of this bizarre interrogation, between a policeman trying his best to rape her with his eyes and words and another trying to insult her by calling her a man.

It could have been worse; it could have happened during Women’s Month.

The two policemen checked the car’s registration and confirmed it hadn’t been stolen. They wanted to check the boot of the car. My friend exited her car, opened the boot. Nothing. The policewoman told my friend to accompany them to the police station so that a crime unit there could check for her criminal record. My friend agreed to follow them to the station. The policewoman insisted that they follow her. My friend asked, in low, placatory tones, how she could know which station to travel to, as the policemen haven’t identified themselves or told her where to go.

The policemen decided at this point to call it a day. The policewoman’s final words to my friend were “The truth will set you free, you need to go to Home Affairs.”

My friend is a South African citizen. She’s a successful professional who makes her money honestly. She tells me a story about this heinous abuse at the hands of the police and I believe her. I believe every word because this story is only the latest story I have heard or experienced first-hand about our police force, about the unprofessionalism and brutality that increasingly characterises our interactions with 'them'. 

My friend is not the first woman who has told me about being harassed by male policemen. I even have a story of my own, of a big strong man standing over a prostrate, crying woman on some lonely side street, of racing down the hill to the police station to nag an officer to follow me back up the hill to arrest the man, and of the officer speaking briefly to the man and woman (now on her feet) before heading back to the station. 

That story is the thin edge of abuse, of a police force not interested in serving the most vulnerable in our society, rather than actively harassing the vulnerable. 

My whiteness and maleness offers the most protection against the excesses of police abuse, but I’m not completely immune. There have been attempts by members of the force to solicit bribes from me at road blocks and trapping areas. 

I’ve learned a lot in the last few years from my interactions with the police. I’ve learned to renew my license disk on time and to have my car in working order. On the nights when I’m driving I do my best not to drink at all, so that if I’m breathalysed my record will be spotless. I even keep an emergency triangle in the car in case I’m asked to produce one. 

I’ve learned to keep my licence separately in my cubby-hole. When I’m asked to produce it I can do so quickly and my wallet is hidden under my seat. I offer a polite smile and play dumb if I’m asked to pay a spot fine or “cooldrink money”. 

There have been many routine, professional times I’ve had with the police, maybe even the majority of my interactions. Unfortunately I’ve had too many unpleasant, unprofessional, uneasy conversations for me to trust a set of flashing blue lights. 

I sympathise with the police, particularly the rank and file who are exposed to so much violence and trauma themselves. They face a high risk of death or injury for relatively few thanks or reward. Meanwhile, the top law enforcement posts in the country have largely been filled by political appointees under the last two administrations. In recent years, officers seen as loyal to various factions have been promoted through the ranks in highly irregular ways.

Between the naked displays of promotion for those close to power and the cloying smell of manure that clings to the office of the National Police Commissioner, it’s also no surprise that much of the police force is demoralised and directionless. 

I can feel sympathy for the police who are traumatised and leaderless, but it’s the kind of useless pity you would feel for a dog that’s been beaten half-crazy; you want to feel the pity at a distance, out of the way of its teeth and claws. Your sadness is trumped by your need for self-preservation.

Under the Zuma administration our police service has once again become a police force, against the advice of many and the warnings of a few. Writers like Johnny Steinberg have written well on the untransformed relationship between the police and the citizenry. Any chance of mending that relationship seems to have vanished with the rebranding of the police. 

Under Apartheid, where much of a black person’s daily existence could be criminalised and the police were often used as a force to brutalise, the person in the street feared and did not trust the police. The idea to transform the police into a service was about removing that fear and fostering trust. 

The experiment in creating a police service was short-lived. The smooth gums of the ICD meant that a culture of impunity could grow and thrive in the police force – impunity to torture, assault and kill. Four years ago there was a shoot-out between the SAP and Metro Police in Johannesburg with live ammunition. To date no officers have been fired.

Our police force saw its extra-judicial powers increase with the creation of some elite squads. These units have had their share of controversy. One is being investigated for a number of deaths in Cato Manor. Another has been the subject of an investigation on Third Degree. The thread of violence snakes its way through these units and through the regular force.

Daily Maverick journalists have pieced together a picture of miners being murdered by the police at Marikana. I have no doubt that most of the events took place as described. It is a terrible, bizarre story of police brutality, unprofessionalism and impunity. It is the worst story for some time, but it is only one of the latest stories about the police that I know. 

In our era of modern nation-states there are a number of contracts between the citizenry and the state. One of the most fundamental and over-arching agreements is that citizens cede their right to violence to the state. Policemen and soldiers are given the right to injure and even kill in order to safeguard the rest of us. They are the agents of the state in its application of force.

When these agents are used for some narrow factional purpose and to terrorise innocent people, it can be convincingly argued that the state has lost its legitimacy. A simple litmus test of the state’s legitimacy is whether justice is seen to be done at Marikana. 

But what will happen to the policemen who abused my friend? How widespread do these stories have to be before they are a litmus test of their own?

I am normally happy to sit on the fence and chalk many things up to the ineptitude of politicians, rather than to their malevolence. For example, I can see the need for some form of the POSIB to be passed into law since it is amending an Apartheid-era law which needed to be changed. I can pretend for a while that the clauses shielding the defence and intelligence sectors and those punishing people acting in the public interest are the work of politicians with the normal level of paranoia and hunger for power.

However, it is impossible to ignore the evidence any more. Our current administration is headed by a man who specialised in intelligence when in exile, a man who has surrounded himself with other spies and spooks and intelligence operatives. 

The efforts to exempt the intelligence community from proper democratic oversight and the call for more violence and force from the police are connected. Our country is being run by people who only know of one way to do things: through force and subterfuge. This belief in force and the talk of war has affected our police force. It has entrenched a reliance on violence and a belief that the police are at war with the rest of the country. 

Rather than put resources back into specialised units for abuse and for sexual crimes against women and children, the resources have been ploughed into new units with paramilitary functions. Our police force is less and less about helping the most vulnerable in society and more and more about being able to kill more professionally. 

The road back from where we are is a long one, but the first step must be a change from the current administration. There are ways to ameliorate the crises in public health and education (and our current health minister is one of the bright lights in these dark times) but there isn’t much that the private sector can do about a police force that is simply another gang with all the firepower. The Zuma administration, with its reliance on power and fear, is a menace to the people of South Africa. DM

  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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