/ 11 September 2008

Pain on the beat

Jonny Steinberg’s new book, Thin Blue: The Unwritten Rules of Policing South Africa (Jonathan Ball), paints a scary portrait of policing in this country.

From the back seat of a police car, he observes how the police are openly challenged by members of the populace and how they cannot afford to stand up to those breaking the law or threatening them. He sees how, in consequence, policing becomes a kind of bizarre theatre, in which cops act out stylised versions of their supposed functions, attempting at least to save face, while a hostile and contemptuous citizenry looks on.

This is Steinberg’s second book to hit our shelves in a year. The first was his work on attitudes to HIV/Aids, Three-Letter Plague, which delved into very personal areas to tell that story. Thin Blue is shorter, and more of a “snapshot” of the state of things now, but it draws on long experience. From when he first returned to South Africa after studying in the United Kingdom, says Steinberg, “I wanted to write about this place, and one of the most interesting things to write about here is crime.”

He had the policing beat at Business Day, and after he left that paper he kept working on criminal justice, writing policy papers for the Institute of Security Studies. Then he was offered a commission by the Open Society Foundation, which led to this book. He says: “I thought, ‘For 10 years I’ve spent a lot of time in patrol vans and watching things and being totally fascinated, but not trying to make sense of what I’ve seen in one piece.'” He spent a further three months going out on patrol with Gauteng policemen and women, and his account of that time and his conclusions about it are the substance of Thin Blue.

He describes how a dynamic of shame infects the work of policemen; how, lacking authority on the streets, they respond with alacrity (but also with disgust) to domestic-violence cases. The private home becomes another kind of theatre, where policemen (and, perhaps to a lesser degree, policewomen) can act out a fantasy of control.

“Universally,” says Steinberg, “there’s an element of shame in calling the police, not just in South Africa. To call the police is to say you’ve lost your agency, you need somebody else to come in because you’ve lost control. The whole structure of the situation evokes shame. In a situation like South Africa’s, where the police so nakedly lack credibility and authority, it’s far more shameful to call the police. A woman who calls people into her home, people who she knows her community doesn’t like, people who she knows are going to treat her like shit in one way or another, is a sign of massive defeat.”

For the police, the defeat is that they are not wanted on the streets. There is little consent to being policed on the part of the general population.

“Where they can do something is in private homes, because that’s the one place they are actually called to be. Policing only works when there’s a demand for it. The one place in South Africa where there’s a continual demand for police is in private homes, and they’re drawn to where they are called, where they feel okay. If you put that to them, they disagree with contempt. It is dirty work, it’s about other people’s mess and lack of dignity, so when they say they don’t like it they mean it. But what they’re feeling is complicated, and they use those situations to play their own roles as moral agents and deflect the rest of what’s going on in their lives. I think that when they go into a private home what’s really looming in their minds is the people out on the streets who bully them, and they can have a turn to be the bully themselves, or they can confront the violent men as a proxy for the people who bully them outside.”

Steinberg also touches on issues of social change, hierarchy and status, how policemen (and, again, it’s particularly men) feel the pressure of embourgeoisment, of feeling they have to claw their way up the social ladder — which can make corrupt activities very tempting. Instead of standing above the population at large and using the power of an impartial law, they become traders in a marketplace where security and violence are commodities to be bought and sold. This has cost them their authority.

As Steinberg points out, “Urban existence in South Africa, from its inception, was fundamentally lawless. People established their own rules and their own protection. What you needed was an agency that had authority, that transcended that, that said ‘We are beyond that, we’re not like any of the other agencies that have fought in this terrain.'”

State policy has not helped. “Since 1994 we’ve made a kind of category mistake. We’ve been looking at it from the wrong angle. We’ve been thinking this is an apartheid police force so what they need is legitimacy. That assumes you have a South African population that has already given its consent to being policed and you just need to give them the police force they want.

“Government had it exactly the wrong way round,” Steinberg says. “They wanted to knit the police into the community, to bring it closer. They were borrowing ideas from around the world, soft liberal ideas, which need communication, a lot of lateral relationships. We fundamentally misunderstood the problem, because we were seduced by the idea of a good, oppressed population, with a heart that was morally pure, a population that was united, that was heroic because it had defeated apartheid.”

Are there solutions?
“I don’t think it takes a very big police force to ensure that every robbery and every murder is well investigated. You can make it into an elite agency that is well paid and, more important, has a professional ethos that you drive into the agency through its work and through the resources you give it.”