Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Cape Flats: On the border of war and privilege

It’s Friday night on the Cape Flats. The wind whips between the three-storey brick ­tenements, shaking the few lights that still work and rattling the washing lines strung along the courtyards. Shadows move between the carcasses of abandoned taxis and rubbish skips. Here, the dogs bark unrelentingly.

The police helicopter hovers above. Its blades thump in the air, first low and heavy, then crackling as the pilot turns and comes around again.

“Sergeant, to your left, in that patch of grass.” The co-pilot guides me with a strong beam from the front spotlight. “Looks like he threw a firearm when he ran …”  

More coverage
Verkykerskop: Where sheep may safely graze
Hillbrow: Where cops do the work for drug lords
Attacks on shops in Duduza 'not random'

The bright circle on the ground shakes and jerks as the chopper struggles against the southeaster. I search in its glare, kicking aside the broken bottles, lifting a broken mattress that sends black beetles scurry-ing. The gnarled leg of a dog sticks out from a pile of rubble. I can smell its sour decay when I bend down.  Dust and torn pieces of plastic swirl around me, covering me in grit. My eyes can hardly make out the ground at my feet. There is no firearm here.

The helicopter shifts overhead, leaving me momentarily in ­darkness, only to return, lower down now, bathing me in light and sand that kicks up against the sides of the vibracrete wall.

A gunshot goes off further away. The thud of choppers and the sound of gunfire: it feels like a movie, it feels like warfare.  If my son looked out of his room in the loft, he would be able to see this small aircraft hovering way in the distance, its stream of light connecting it like a cord to some unknown road, somewhere out on the Flats. I’m troubled by the thought that he might see, but not know I am there.

Two shots in rapid succession, from the other side of the nearest tenement. “They’re shooting in the field behind the flats!” a constable shouts over the radio.

The spotlight hesitates, and then with a roar the helicopter banks and is gone. I stand in the dark, wiping my face with the back of my hand, careful not to touch my skin with my fingers. My partner is standing on the corner of the block, watching for movement from the windows above.  They shoot policemen here.

I give up my search and start moving cautiously towards him. A ­curtain stirs at an upstairs window.  “Boere poes!” shouts a woman, a glimpse of pink and green curlers before she pulls her head back.

“Fok jou,” I mutter to myself, ­eyeing the windows around her.

We return to our station in the early hours of the morning. My body is slick with grime; my boots are coated in mud and excrement. A ­silver Merc SLK is parked outside the station, incongruously sandwiched between two ageing vans.

Something is wrong, I realise the moment I walk into the charge office.

An embarrassed silence descends the moment I enter, like the forced stillness of parents who have been arguing when their child barges in. The young black constables, usually jovial and loud, are looking away, playing with their cellphones, quietly engrossed in paperwork.

The warrant officer is at the ­counter: beside him stands an immaculately dressed, middle-aged white woman. Her blonde hair is set – just so – and her long legs and short fake-fur coat contrast starkly with the grubbiness that is our charge office. The counter top seems that little more scarred, the floor more scuffed than usual.

It takes me a moment to realise that she is standing on the wrong side of the counter – the accused side. On the public side, a pretty young woman is fretting. The moment is excruciating in its silent desperation. A daughter comes to bail her mother out on a charge of drunken driving.

I glance at the paperwork. Breathalyser analysis indicates she is three times over the limit. The time of arrest indicates that she is being released after only an hour, not the four hours usually required. He hasn’t put her in the cells with the others. He’s releasing her early.  But arrest has not, unfortunately, imbued her with humility. Nor has alcohol improved her innate inclination to entitlement.  

My arrival has brought but a temporary lull. The mother eyes me warily; I am aware that I don’t smell quite as fresh as I might. Then she starts to cluck, her tongue clicking with disapproval, her eyes rolling with impatience. The daughter starts to join in, a stereo of displeasure. “Why is it taking so long,” the daughter huffs. “This place is filthy,” the mother charges, glaring at the constables, who lower their heads defensively. “How can you keep someone like me … like this!”

“Why can’t you go and fight real crime?” The daughter says this as her eyes sweep accusingly over the constables. The barbarian horde. She looks across at me, all coiffed and healthy and hopeful. I am to be her ally and saviour.

“Fok jou,” I mutter in my mind as I turn away.

Advocate Andrew Brown is a police reservist

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Andrew Brown
Business reporter for @postandcourier. Previously learned, interned or worked at @CoMissourian, @mcall, @dickinsonpress and @wvgazettemail Andrew Brown has over 2585 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Subscribers only

‘People feel they have a stake in SAA’ — Gidon...

Interest in the beleaguered national carrier, which has received billions of rands in public funding, means criticism is inevitable

Soweto teacher dismissed for the alleged repeated rape of a...

The learner was 13 when the alleged rapes started, and they continued for two years until she asked to be moved to another school

More top stories

Eskom to take over distribution, billing at troubled Free State...

The Maluti-a-Phofung local municipality owes the power utility more than R5-billion

WATCH IT LIVE: Ramaphosa addresses the nation

The president will give an update on developments in South Africa's response to the Covid-19 pandemic

ANC committed to paying staff salaries, but employees are not...

ANC staffers picketed outside Luthuli House on Tuesday after months of problems with salary payments

Kanalelo Boloetsi: Taking on Lesotho’s cellphone giants, and winning

A man who took on cellphone data regulators over out-of-bundle rates is featured in this edition of a series on human rights defenders in the SADC region

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…