Analysis

Police must learn to make protest work

Julia Hornberger

They must assume that people want to deliver messages – and help them to do so.

A suspect is arrested in East London in November 1952. (AFP)

On April 13 2011, Andries Tatane was killed by officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS) during a protest in Ficksburg. This brutal killing was a watershed moment, marking the return of repressive police violence.

It drew public awareness to a chain of similar incidents of police brutality during protests including, of course, the Marikana shootings. These amount to a frightening picture of police failure to deal with public protests in a democratically acceptable manner.

Ironically, in the past 15 years the SAPS has been substantially disinvesting from public-order policing in order to deal with the pressure to reduce crime. In an effort to increase its legitimacy it has been putting the bulk of its resources into “ordinary” crime fighting. Under the Thabo Mbeki government, the public order unit began to be dismantled and by 2007 it was reduced by more than 64% in terms of personnel. Officers were relocated to bolster everyday police station work and to major crime-fighting operations.

In the light of history this could be considered an unprecedented and even a progressive move. From inception, a primary role of the police in South Africa was not to keep peace among people but to police territory and suppress internal resistance to colonial rule. Prior to Union in 1910, a multiplicity of units proliferated, such as mounted military police and special police for key infrastructure.

Even the municipal police, which supposedly subscribed to a more civilian outlook, supported the mining industries in forcefully managing workers. The enforcement of the Liquor Law, the Gold Law and the Pass Law in particular led to ongoing raids on mining compounds and black living quarters, and the mass incarceration of an otherwise innocent black population.

Throughout the 20th century, the police was concerned with urban unrest. At times it was almost fully absorbed by the task of quelling protests and strikes. Many of their interventions involved the killing of people and left protesting groups more united and politicised than before the intervention.

The task of suppressing protest drove a process of militarisation of the police, with a bias towards drill-and-weapon training and the introduction of military ranks in 1919. Where the police was trying to deal with so-called ordinary crime, which threatened white people’s lives and property in the growing and industrialising cities, it was deeply inefficient and entangled in corrupt relationships.

Implausible as it might seem, police management tried to maintain a language of modernisation and an aspiration towards professionalism and independence. Yet this was often only the wishful thinking of official documents.

And even where white citizens, who might have had some influence on what kind of police they wanted, expressed their unease about armed police officers patrolling their area, such liberal concerns were quickly overruled – with the very consensus of these citizens – when confronted with a growing black urban under- and working class.

This bias toward crowd control reproduced itself over the years in different variations. By the 1980s the effect was a militarised police with little capacity for ordinary crime control. This political bias left black areas to their own devices in terms of creating ways of safe living. This gap was filled with formations of informal justice. It was a form of self-rule that was sometimes politically legitimate, sometimes a menace. And for the state, it was often instrumentalised as a useful evil in a divide-and-rule policy.

It normalised the lack of security, and legitimised highly authoritarian and immediate forms of punishment. After 1994, with democratic promises of inclusion, this produced a highly ambiguous and individualised yearning for the force of the state – the hope that the police intervene forcefully in one’s own favour.

We could draw an analogy here between public-order policing and the policing of domestic violence. Domestic violence is symptomatic of conditions of (gender) inequalities and economic disempowerment, structural conditions that the police alone cannot change.

The call for help from the police expresses the desire for a protective but authoritative figure, who can at least match the husband’s violence. The municipalities’ relationship to public-order policing is not very different. It is mostly not the legitimacy of the government as such that is at stake, but rather the working of the local state that leads to protest.

The police become the most tangible manifestation of the state, and the addressee to receive the message (of anger). The issue of policing thus serves as a rallying point to hold government accountable and make the suffering heard. This marks a huge difference compared with the late apartheid era: there is a demand for actual policing.

Yet the police response to this demand mostly disappoints and in fact aggravates the situation. It is not only that the police cannot solve the situation, but that the very act of policing produces retaliation.

Protesters might feel shut up and the sense of violence suffered is recast as a political sacrifice, meaning that people go into subsequent protests with the expectation that further sacrifice might be necessary.

Police intervention is crucial to what happens at a gathering; it has the possibility of either giving people the sense that movement is possible or that a horizon is closed; and police can themselves be responsible for escalating hostility. There is always a broad spectrum of people in a crowd, from individuals who are quite willing to police themselves to those who are more prepared to use violence. It is police action, which confuses the acts of a few with the acts of a whole crowd, and creates the crowd as a homogeneous (and violent) entity, that leads to a crowd uniting and halting communication. To avoid an escalation of violence the police would always need to assume that the crowd is there to deliver a message. The police cannot change inequality and unemployment, but it can choose the side of the protesters and help to deliver the message.

Here is a good example of how this should go, taken from policing expert PAJ Waddington, who was observing the negotiations between representatives of a far-left anarchist group and Metropolitan Police officers during the early 1990s in Britain. The declared aspiration of the protesters was to “tear down the fabric of capitalism”, to which the superintendent conducting the meeting replied: “And how can we help you?”

Yet little in the way of such a radical mind shift in the approach to police intervention seems to be on the horizon in South Africa. Instead the promise has been to bring back and even build more public-order capacity than ever before. Soon there are supposed to be 9 000 police officers ready to deal with community protests all over the country.

Because nothing much might change in terms of people’s demands, the role of the police is likely to be that of an occupying army. Unless, maybe, they stick instead to their course of getting ordinary crime-fighting right, and at least to make sure that protest does not increase because of their interventions. And so they had better learn how to make protest work. What we need is a complicit police; complicit not in inertia, but in making things move.

Julia Hornberger is a senior lecturer in the anthropology department of the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of Human Rights and Policing: The Meaning of Violence and Justice in the Everyday Policing of Johannesburg (Routledge).


Crisis in local government

Public Positions on History and Politics is a project of the University of the Witwatersrand’s department of political studies, the History Workshop and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, with support from the Raith Foundation.

For papers and details of future seminars, visit wiser.wits.ac.za/publicpositions.
The Mail & Guardian is the ­project’s media partner.

The next session, on Monday May 26, starts at 5pm in the Wiser seminar room in the Richard Ward building, East Campus. The University of Cape Town’s Zweli Jolobe will speak on The Crisis of Democratic Representation in Local Government, and discussion will follow with Daryl Glaser (chairperson), Achille Mbembe and Mcebisi Ndletyana.

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