Louis Theroux said last week, from London, that he has visited South Africa more than half a dozen times and finds the country ‘in certain significant ways somewhat nightmarish”. This week South Africans got a chance to witness Theroux’s journey into the nightmare of local lawlessness as he travelled to Hillbrow and Diepsloot to meet the victims and perpetrators of crime first-hand.
In part one of a two-part series, titled Law and Disorder, Theroux came to Johannesburg to try to gain a deeper understanding of the root causes of crime. In the process he was thrown into hair-raising dramas. These included the hijacking and forced reclamation of inner-city buildings and the disenchantment of Diepsloot’s squatter residents with the private policing tactics of Mapogo security company director William Mayangoni. Mapogo employees have been known to assault suspected criminals before establishing culpability — this much is clear from Theroux’s exposé.
Next week BBC viewers can travel with Theroux to Philadelphia in the episode ironically titled Killadelphia, another inner-city horror story. Jo’burgers will be interested to see how a rather sedate set of drug dealers is hounded by the police, adding palpably to tensions between the law enforcers and the law-breakers. In Killadelphia, though, the police are a visibly recognisable force.
In Law and Disorder in Johannesburg one witnesses how policing is done with a strange mixture of improvisation and coercion by ad-hoc forces that are sometimes difficult to identify as representatives of the law.
The Mail & Guardian spoke to Theroux on the telephone from London.
You’ve done documentaries about hunting, the right wing and lawlessness in South Africa. You obviously find us fascinating subject matter.
For the most recent documentary, about law and disorder, I’d read about high crime in South Africa and I’d heard, anecdotally, scare stories about what was going on and the occasional news stories. For example, when [ex-president FW] De Klerk’s ex-wife was murdered, and the South African reggae star Lucky Dube, when he was killed. And then newspaper articles in the British press about the rampant crime rate.
We were thinking about doing something about crime somewhere and Jo’burg was quite high on the list. Then we ended up doing Philadelphia — getting in with the police there, because the police were very open. And because that was going quite well, I said, let’s do Jo’burg as well.
Philadelphia, for the United States, has a high crime rate but would be considered in a South African context as a model law-abiding community — if the statistics I’ve read are anything to go by. South Africa as an entire nation seems to have a homicide rate that’s comparable with the worst city in the US — that being Detroit.
We went out there looking at crime and thinking of it conventionally as crime being committed by the poor and the chaotic elements against the haves by the have-nots, but when we were there we couldn’t document that story, we couldn’t stand it up.
Not to say it doesn’t go on, but we rode out many nights with security services and we saw break-ins but nothing too horrific.
Meanwhile, this other story came to our attention, which was that in the poorer areas crime was absolutely endemic on a daily basis. In particular, vigilantes were policing the areas that the police weren’t going into in an ad hoc way. These [were] mobs that would assemble and stone and kill people identified as robbers.
I notice in your form of television while the programme is running you don’t come to any hard and fast conclusions — you tend to allow the viewers to come to their own conclusions about what’s being depicted.
I try not to editorialise in an obvious way. The pieces are supposed to be about the people who are in the mess that they’re in and the choices that they’re having to make. And hopefully the material, or the people, will speak for themselves, or speak against themselves.
Have you seen a worse place than inner-city Johannesburg?
I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of terrible places, but of the scary places I’ve been, Hillbrow would be up there. The most depressing sight that I saw in Hillbrow didn’t end up in the documentary. There’s a small community of homeless children who sniff glue and live on the streets and that was the most troubling thing I saw.
We filmed a little bit there. It seemed off the point and much too depressing and provocative to include in the documentary when it wasn’t strictly on the subject that we were interested in.
So, to answer the question, I would say Hillbrow is worse than Diepsloot because in Diepsloot you feel that there is a sense of community — it felt less on the edge. Maybe one’s expectations are less, but there is a sense of community and a sense of family, whereas in Hillbrow at night it is a genuinely scary place.
They say this argument about the forces of law abdicating responsibility and policing becoming privatised is in fact a growing international phenomenon — do you believe that and do you see that in your own environment at all?
Up to a point it’s true, but not in a major way. I would say it’s less true of Britain than South Africa — and places in the US where there are huge differences between the poor and the rich.
There are vast differences of income. The mall culture, private shopping areas that are privately owned, have private police guarding them and in that sense it is part of my life. If I go to a mall and I have a problem the police won’t be called — it will be some security guard. But in my daily life, I still live in a society where that law enforcement function is performed overwhelmingly by publicly paid policemen.
Is this double feature about cities part of a series you’re growing?
Not really. The way it works is that I am contracted to deliver a certain amount of programmes — they are one-offs and so it’s unusual that we did it as a two-parter.
It was a good experience doing two on a theme and so we are looking for other themes we could treat in the same way — but the more normal way we do things is as one-offs, as TV specials on a particular subject I find interesting.
Of course, there are parallels and certain themes that emerge — the kinds of subjects that we’re interested in, but it’s not usually spelled out. So each one is in theory a unique product.
Do you think nice places would make boring television?
In terms of the kind of TV I make, nice places would make no kind of television at all. There would be nothing to get my teeth into, unless there was something interesting going on underneath the surface.
I thrive on subjects where there is something self-contradictory, something challenging, provocative or something where you feel like people are making choices that are questionable or strange, or self-defeating in some way.
We did a thing about hunting in a place that was quite nice — it was in the northern part of Jo’burg on the eastern side. It was a lovely area, although not particularly scenic — wide-open spaces. But then the core of the concept and the idea of the programme was that the animals were being killed. I guess that wasn’t very nice.
And for yourself, as you’ve gone through these extraordinary environments, engaged with them and seen what you’ve seen, do you find that your own sense of morality has shifted? You play a specific character as Louis going through all of it. It’s almost like you are being initiated into these scenarios as you go along — you’re very virginal.
People often try to pin me down on this question, asking me: ‘Are you really real, or are you playing a character?” I feel as though people think I’m putting something on that I’m not.
I understand that in television, by having a camera there and being a journalist, there’s a sort of professional role that you fall into. You ask questions that you may know the answer to. You react to things in a way, to seem fresh when perhaps you’ve read the research, when you know that such and such a thing is happening for such and such a reason.
I understand you’re playing it for the camera and it’s necessary to expose the ongoing drama to the audience. It’s not a morality issue. But what’s really strange is that you had these beautiful women coming on to you in Louis and the Brothel and you made it explicitly clear that you chose not to have any real physical relations with them. Most red-blooded males would have thought what the hell. When the cameras stopped running did you get involved?
If you don’t mind me saying, that’s a very South African point of view.
If you don’t mind me saying so, that’s very unfair.
You’re still carrying on the frontier Voortrekker spirit. You play a lot of rugby, I take it?
Well, actually, I’m gay —
[Laughs] To be honest with you, I have a girlfriend. And when you’re in there, even if you wanted to misbehave, it would be so destructive to the whole project. I am, if nothing else, a professional, and so I have got to play by the rules. You’re there to do a job and so all your energies are focused on doing the best you can, to paint a picture of this place.
And in some instances, giving the kinds of people who would be judged harshly a chance to prove they’re not so bad — such as militant right-wingers?
I think so. Or at least to show that they’ve been taken to extreme places by understandable human feeling, or occasionally to show them up and reveal them for the people that they are. I sort of run the gamut.
But I do think, in the end, at the heart of the programmes is my attempt to make a human connection with unlikely people. I try to assume the best about people and then if I’m disproved, then so be it.
That’s charitable. Some people would not have given a chance to the kinds of people you’ve given a chance to. Yet when it comes to people with abhorrent politics it’s uncomfortable. It makes one uneasy, I think.
It’s good to be made uneasy and I do think that viewers deserve to be challenged. One has to make a documentary that will keep people engaged for 60 minutes. So you have to go on a journey with the characters you are dealing with. I hope people do get uneasy.
The last question — which I’m sure is the same in all interviews — is what are you doing next? Where are you heading?
Coming up, we’re trying to lighten the palate a little bit. We’re going to bring some lighter shades in. But it’s all about finding people who are doing stuff that’s intriguing, challenging, counterintuitive.
So you would never do 24 hours in the life of a ballet company?
No — I don’t think so. I just don’t think I’d be able to stay awake.
Louis Theroux’s Law and Disorder in Johannesburg was broadcast on August 6 at 9.30pm on BBC Know-ledge. A repeat broadcast will be shown on September 10 at the same time. Killadelphia will be broadcast on August 13 at 9.30pm on BBC Knowledge