I see a few healthy spikes of the Nelson Mandela Bridge from my office window at the journalism school at the University of the Witwatersrand (the mark of a good view in Johannesburg), and during the protests —particularly on the day of the burning bus, October 10 — I could peer directly downward into Jorissen Street to judge the standoff.
To my left I could see the students building their camp of protest, using a dismantled concrete wastebin as a way of marking their territory, and, to my right, stretching out of my view, I could see the cops: vans, cars, bunches on foot and all heavily armed.
The unjust force and incredible violence used by the police during this protest are well documented, but, if you watch the police wander around in their ample numbers, as I could from my office in University Corner, you’ll detect immediately a lack of training and command.
I don’t want to absolve the police of their actions, but they are symptomatic of the endemic problems I discovered while investigating my new book, The Street: Exposing a World of Cops, Bribes and Drug Dealers. Until we fix the meat-and-potatoes accountability and structural problems in the police, they will continue to abuse their power (particularly during a relatively easy day at a protest).
While spending two years writing my book, I spent a great deal of time with a police officer called Khaba (I changed the names to protect the people involved).
He lived in the police barracks at Johannesburg Central in downtown Jo’burg. Khaba’s room was not much larger than a double bed, with a fan and television filling the rest of the small space.
The television was on — even at a low volume — continuously. It was an old tube TV, and it paved over the silence of being alone and screened out the commotion of neighbours. When he wasn’t working, Khaba spent most evenings in that room reading his Unisa textbooks. He was studying to crowbar himself out
The textbooks were stacked on a second TV stand. He had lived in this single room (no kitchen, with a shared bathroom, with broken tiles, across the passage) for two years. The windows were sealed shut and the sharp smell of bleach from Khaba’s cleaning nulled my appetite. Sometimes the fumes made it hard to concentrate.
His cats nibbled and dragged a raw minute steak we had bought at the Spar into the corner of the room. One of them disappeared with the meat under the pillow and then down to the corner of the bed.
When we talk about the police —and their actions — we also need to appreciate the conditions they frequently live in.
My voice recorder was on the bed. Khaba usually kept his firearm in his cupboard in a laptop bag, but that day it lay in its holster on the bed. We were talking about the violence in the police. I had grown to appreciate that Khaba was a decent man with a strong code of ethics who, at heart, was a farm boy. Khaba said he liked animals huddled around him. He had kept animals on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal, but that was long ago.
The population of the barracks was divided between police who were broke and those who had had to flee. Khaba was in the barracks because, quite simply, he feared for his life. He lived like a stowaway in a room on a decaying ship.
The Ladysmith case was why Khaba was in Johannesburg. It had involved the torture of a 16-year-old boy at the hands of two of his police colleagues.
The officers confessed their horrendous crime to Khaba so he would protect them, but he responded by fighting against them, saying he would help to put them in jail.
The case ended with them being acquitted.
Khaba had to flee for speaking out after some police officers threatened to burn his house down.
He is aware of the excessive violence in the police. He has tried to thwart it and has been punished accordingly. The normalisation of violence and the lack of accountability in the police are the fuel for the continuing fees protests.
Earlier this month, Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane, the acting police commissioner, said that “criminality” had “taken advantage of young people in the universities under the disguise of the #FeesMustFall initiative”. This felt like a veiled way to excuse the brutality.
What the South African Police Service doesn’t acknowledge is that its members bring with them an expectation of violence to any scenario that escalates — students or elements of “criminality” prove the police’s point by pre-empting them with aggression.
One of the last times I met Khaba was in the barracks parking lot. There was a pause in our conversation as I noticed a white sedan in the corner. The windscreen was caved in — as if an elephant had sat on the bonnet of the car. The glass hadn’t entirely shattered inward, but the driver would have struggled to see through it from behind the wheel.
Khaba walked over to the car. I said it looked like something had been dropped on the windscreen.
“No, no — those signs indicate that it collided with something like a person. A body,” he said. He stopped to yell hello to someone who was walking past and then turned his attention back to the car. “Part of the body fell like that.”
I asked whose car it was and Khaba asked someone in the parking lot if it was a state car. They said yes.
“It’s a police car,” he said. “It’s unmarked.” He pointed. “You can see the blood there. His legs are broken. Look at the bumper. Look at the bumper.”
He pointed out the thin streak of blood on the bonnet and the damaged bumper on the passenger side. “This is the mark of a person being driven into and rolling up the bonnet and cracking the windshield,” he explained, then added: “The person is surely dead.”
I stared at the car with my new knowledge. The blood had not even been cleaned off.
There was the implication that we were looking at a murder weapon, sponsored by the state, and here it stood casually in the police barracks’ parking lot.
Khaba’s way of repeating his sentences meant he talked about the blood and bumper and death again and again.
After a minute, we turned away from the car and continued talking.
Paul McNally investigates the corrupt relationship between drug dealers and the police in Johannesburg in The Street: Exposing a World of Cops, Bribes and Drug Dealers, published by Picador.