A question of consent

2008-10-14 00:00

“I DO not care about the job. Nobody does. We are all in the same boat. Caring about the job is something for the station commissioner, not for us.”

These are the sobering words of Inspector H, one of Gauteng’s senior crime fighters, told to writer Jonny Steinberg over a meal of Nando’s grilled chicken and boiled rice, and recorded in Steinberg’s second offering in the space of a year: Thin Blue Line: the unwritten rules of policing South Africa.

A thin volume by Steinberg’s standards, but based on a lot of legwork, including the 350 hours between 2004 and 2007 he spent on police patrols, the book is a clever mix of journalism, literary skill and academic analysis which takes us behind the scenes of policing in South Africa to uncover the “unwritten rules” which prescribe the testy relationship between the police force and the people it is meant to serve.

Assigned to investigate the murder of a man in a shack settlement on the East Rand, the concerned but ultimately impotent Inspector H is one of a long succession of police officers dodging their real responsibilities. Or, as Steinberg puts it, “pretending” to police a citizenry which in turn is “pretending to be policed”.

Steinberg’s central thesis is that, 14 years after democracy, South Africa’s general population is yet to give its consent to being policed by a force it perceives to have no moral authority. He draws links between the loss in authority and the 1976 uprisings, which forced police to pull out of townships around the country and, according to Steinberg, “changed the face of policing”.

Thus today’s police officers are always on the lookout for ways to retreat, while trying to save face at the same time.

In Thin Blue, Steinberg watches police go through the motions of chasing a knife-carrying youth, only to offer him, once out of the public eye, a literal escape route. Later, in a face-saving act of wordless “negotiation”, the outnumbered police duo confiscates two beer bottles from a large crowd of Mozambicans drinking illegally in the street, pours out the contents and moves off, in silent relief at not being hurt, and without making any arrests.

The problem with negotiation, suggests Steinberg, is that it compounds the problem of lost authority. “The more police officers negotiate, the more they begin to resemble other, private users of violence, and the less they look like police.”

Among township residents, Steinberg discovers, police are viewed with contempt for two reasons. Firstly, they have never been forgiven for their inflammatory role during apartheid and, secondly, they are uniformly perceived to be “among a new breed of scavengers”, who in their quest to become members of the suburb-dwelling middle class (a position which is largely unviable given entry-level police salaries), are prone to expedience at best and corruption at worst.

Steinberg’s own interactions with young police constables, including Constable T, who was once employed to wear a chicken suit to entertain child patrons at Kentucky Fried Chicken and dreams of becoming a customs officer, bear this out. Living beyond his means, with the weight of his family’s expectations on his shoulders, Constable T’s capitulation to “cho-cho”, township slang for graft, seems inevitable.

How did it all go so wrong for South Africa?

One mistake, according to Steinberg, was that, come 1994, the liberation movement “misread its people”.

“It believed that its people had long ago given their consent to being policed, that it was just a question of delivering a benign police force,” writes Steinberg. In other words, the government put too much faith in the deeply liberal notion of a social contract in terms of which laws are made by responsible citizens who agree to abide by them.

As Steinberg points out, by 1994 security markets on which “violence was traded for money, for sympathy and for tactical co-operation” were deeply entrenched. “To get South Africa to give its consent ... would require breaking down a generations-old architecture of security and protection,” he writes.

Under the circumstances, the government wrongly put the restoration of police legitimacy above the arguably more important task of restoring authority.

Referring to the work of Antony Altbeker, Steinberg suggests that rebuilding the detective service should have been the “most urgent task”.

“If the police service did stand a chance of elevating itself above existing security markets, it was by doing well what states alone can do: detecting violent crime with competence and impartiality, and seeing to the prosecution of offenders. That is, after all, precisely what had been missing from generations of township life.”

But without the required authority — moral or otherwise — the police seem to only stumble blindly from one incident to the next. Steinberg watches as police officers attempt to recover some self-respect by seeking refuge in the world of domestic violence cases. Off the street and in people’s homes where they are summoned, police enact what Steinberg calls their “new post-democracy role”.

Desperate for the respect denied to them by the crowds in the street, inside the homes of the vulnerable, the police become “blunt, authoritarian schoolteachers shunting their prepubescent charges around”. Steinberg witnesses countless arrests which achieve little other than a break in the endless cycles of violence and routine police work.

Of course, there are exceptions. In Kagiso, Steinberg meets a female police officer, Inspector N, who demonstrates what has been singularly lacking in the approaches of her male counterparts: concern for the long-term interests of domestic violence complainants. But such exceptions seem few and far between.

In his closing pages, Steinberg examines the increasing reliance among suburban whites on private security and community-based crime-fighting initiatives. “... for the first time in the history of South African security, whites are starting to behave like blacks,” he writes. “Abandoning the state as failed protector, they are beginning to organise personal protection on open markets, out of ethnic solidarity, out of neighbourliness ...”

He interviews B, a community leader in the Jewish-dominated suburb of Glenhazel, where B claims there’s been a 77% drop in armed robberies as a result of community-based crime-fighting initiatives and the suburb’s paid-for security agency. While B believes the Glenhazel model can be applied throughout South Africa, including the townships, Steinberg expresses scepticism, concluding that throwing money at private security companies and reliance on ethnic solidarity is “no substitute for a state agency charged with policing people and investigating crimes”.

There’s no doubting the value of this brief, yet perceptive piece of research in what is apparently an under-researched field. But it is no blueprint for overhauling our ailing police force, although a quick glance by the new Safety and Security Minister might provide ample food for thought, and action.

Steinberg’s gift seems to be getting under the skin of his individual subjects (while remaining detached), exposing their inner drives, but at the same time hooking them up to a wider sociological framework.

His detachment from his subjects intrigued me and made me notice that among the book’s acknowledgments — to the Open Society Foundation of Southern Africa which funded the research, to the Ernest Oppenheimer Fund Committee which sent him on a fellowship to the African Studies Centre at Oxford University to write the book, to his colleagues at Oxford and other academics, and to his publishers and marketers — there are no thanks for the policemen and women who tolerated 350 hours’ worth of Steinberg’s cool gaze and calculated questions.

And apart from a reference in the final chapter to going out on patrol with two constables who were “not especially pleased to have me with them”, Steinberg is silent on the impact of his presence — a white guy with no apparent purpose at dead-of-night crime scenes in the heart of Johannesburg’s townships and informal settlements — on the interactions he witnessed.

That he negotiated such intimate access to the internal operations of a service cagey about releasing crime statistics to taxpayers is in itself an intriguing story which may have to wait for another time, and another funder.

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