South Africa’s Police Problem

Simone Scriven

In 2014 there was an official inquiry into the state of policing in Khayelitsha, a large township in south-west Cape Town with one of the highest murder rates in South Africa. Social justice movements had been demanding for years that the police be present, well-funded and above all ‘effective and efficient’ in poor, Black neighbourhoods.

Khayelitsha was built in the mid-1980s, as part of the Apartheid regime’s last push to enforce racial segregation as demanded by the Group Areas Acts of the 1950s. More than 98 per cent of the 400,000 people who live in the township are Black. Inadequate, inconsistent and unreliable policing contributed not only to law-breaking, but to residents’ feelings of marginalisation. Police statistics backed up a picture of grim failure in Khayelitsha, with some stations posting single-digit conviction rates for murder.

Since the Khayelitsha Commission concluded, organised working-class activists in Cape Town, as well as less organised community protesters across the country, have continued to demand more police stations, more equipment and more police officers in poor neighbourhoods to combat crime, pointing out what amounts to a racist distribution of policing resources. The broader, less nuanced, conversation in South Africa continually returns to criminal justice metrics: why don’t the police arrest more, why don’t the state defenders prosecute more, why don’t the courts convict more?

Other conversations veer towards reigning the police in: less torture, less killing of protesters, less assault of sex workers. The opposition Democratic Alliance, which governs Cape Town and the Western Cape, has turned municipal law enforcement officers into fearsome, ruthless forces for evictions (last week video footage emerged of officers in Khayelitsha dragging a naked man from his house and throwing him to the ground). The South African police killed more than 200 people in detention in 2018-19 – a metric that used to be a key piece of advocacy against the evils of the Apartheid regime. During the first five weeks of lockdown, while enforcing social distancing measures, the police arrested 230,000 people, most of them poor and Black, and killed 11. No one is asking for more of that.

And yet, South Africa was one of the few countries, for around three months, to show an overall drop in mortality during the pandemic: fewer car accidents, fewer murders. But then, as soon as lock down was partially lifted, we were once again confronted with murders of spectacular sadism. The problems of police presence and the problems of police absence are in a continual dance. It’s horrible, suffocating: we can’t live with the police, and we can’t live without them.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, the solution is supposed to lie in reform. The mandate of the Khayelitsha Commission was essentially reformist, and it was one of the largest projects of its kind, led by eminent judges and guided by community and expert testimony. Organs of government were reminded of their constitutional obligations and the democratic, egalitarian ideals that underpin our society, and given substantial technocratic instructions on how to do better.

No one knows if it could have worked or not, because the police leadership rejected the commission’s findings, and the activists who had advocated for the commission were intimidated and harassed into taking a less confrontational approach. As the Khayelitsha Commission was unfolding, the police were answering the inquiries of the Marikana Commission about their role in the murder of 34 striking miners in 2012, for which not a single officer has ever been charged. That was six years ago. There are many other, more recent examples of police brutality and lack of accountability. None of them tells a substantially different story.

Yet there is still a large section of society that believes the police just need better managers and stricter instructions. If the police could just be encouraged to stand up straighter, hold their heads up higher, and live up to the democratic ideals they are supposed to, things would get better, right?

Once, down the rabbit hole of back-pain blogs, I learned that I would never be able simply to remind myself not to slouch, because the conscious mind was merely a thin layer of scum floating on the muck of the unconscious mind. Poor posture is not about a lack of will, but about lifestyle, environment, ingrained habit and internalised belief.

I am, on the whole, still a believer in South Africa’s democratic project, but I have to admit that whenever I get a ringside view of the interplay between crime and policing in poor communities, it’s hard to see democracy as anything other than a rainbow sheen on the deep muck of an authoritarian and racist state, where ‘justice’ can be understood only in terms of punishment and ‘order’ is a form of submission – but, because the whole state apparatus is also weak, the punishment is essentially arbitrary and the submission is only ever partial. When all you do is strengthen the police, which part of this gets better?

Read the South African news on any day of the week and you might think that ‘defund the police’ was a lunatic proposal. But in a violent and unequal country, burdened by the weight of all the ways the rules are not followed, it’s nonetheless the seed of something interesting. The argument over ‘more or less’ could instead be a conversation about quality over quantity, or equality over disparity; or maybe simply how to arrest corrupt elites instead of street hawkers. If you take as your starting point the idea that the police are almost inevitably the worst solution to any problem, you get a lot more creative about what else you might try.


  • 11 July 2020 at 7:48pm
    Mary-Ann Cullinan says:
    How can we live with the fact that we killed 11 people under lockdown after such a promising initial response to the coronavirus by our president? ANY conversation around policing would be a good start, but I particularly endorse the one which has us dealing with 'how to arrest corrupt elites instead of street hawkers.'

  • 19 July 2020 at 6:05pm
    ralph wortley says:
    The police and particularly the municipal or "traffic" police are significantly - not entirely - corrupt. I have been stopped for speeding where the policeman was openly negotiating his bribe before he even got his book out. In the village where I live we have a police station which is as far as I know honest, but most householders also subscribe to one of the four local security companies, who do all the things police should do. I am told that the annual expenditure on private security in South Africa exceeds by some margin the total cost of formal law enforcement. And it is disturbing to see a street sign "Hijack area" as if this were set aside for that purpose; why are known dangerous areas not done away with by proper policing?

    • 20 July 2020 at 10:36am
      Rod Lloyd says: @ ralph wortley
      The police in any country are essentially an extension of both government and the governed. They operate in a space between standards of behaviour that are morally sanctioned and upheld, and those that can only be controlled through Law and ultimately force. Trust is the overriding factor.
      In South Africa trust is at best in short supply. Corruption and criminality are reported to flourish at the highest levels of government, permeating through Municipal and government utility servers. Middle class citizens, white and black, after paying the bulk of taxation, buy private housing in well kept and lit streets, private security, health care, sport, education and transport, even off-grid electricity.
      The great mass of the population, mainly poor, experience daily, serious neglect in all these spheres of their lives, especially housing.
      Substantial numbers now receive nominal social payments, but ennui, anger, despair and sense of having been failed is widespread. The police, who we send in to ameliorate discord, meet these societies and look in their eye. So they know this and see open contempt for the whole structure of government that they represent. Yet policemen and women are expected to be rational, react with compassion, maintain law and order as though patrolling the precinct of parliament on behalf of a well-governed and satisfied society. Not a uniquely South African scenario.