Can we be safe? Can the police deliver safety? What are other options for South Africans? These are all questions Ziyanda Stuurman interrogates in her latest book, Can We Be Safe?: The Future of Policing in South Africa.
Stuurman, born and raised in George and Gugulethu, critiques the police and the presumptions of safety that legitimise their presence and often their violence.
She argues that safety is not possible when we look at the system of policing. In the nine-chapter book, she takes the reader through evidence of this unsafety by discussing excessive police violence, prison populations that are oversaturated with working-class black people, the widespread inability to hold the police accountable, the lack of solutions that address root causes of crime and the criminalisation of poverty, sex work and blackness.
Can We Be Safe? follows Stuurman’s long-standing career of research and writing about inequality, which she argues is produced by policing.
Stuurman starts the timeline of her book in 1654, when colonists first arrived in South Africa. She discusses the enforcement of borders, establishment of colonies and the creation of the South African Police (SAP) in 1913 as a part of the British-controlled Union of South Africa before it became the South African Police Service (SAPS) in 1994.
Stuurman said it was important to start with the origins of the police service to demonstrate the influence of coloniality.
“I always kind of make this point that in the hundred-year history of [the] SAP (and SAPS) between 1913 and 2012, both of those years are sort of bookended by the police going into mines specifically to crush labour unrest and to crush agitation from striking mine workers.
“And I think it’s just the perfect metaphor for how policing functions from colonial times, where policing originated out of this need for the colonial administrators to have and to hold what they had stolen, what they had to conquered, to suppress a labour force that they were exploiting and that they were keeping, you know, specifically and deliberately poor.”
The year 1994 undoubtedly holds a significant amount of tone-setting moments. But many of these moments of reconciliation, transformation and nation building were highly symbolic but hollow in nature.
One transformation that was dead on arrival was the reform of the police, she argues.
Policing mandates in the 1970s and 1980s were deeply militaristic and the police prioritised controlling, targeting, violating and criminalising black people.
When 1994 arrived, Stuurman cites that newly-elected president, Nelson Mandela, announced he would not initiate a “witch hunt” against the formerly apartheid-driven police. Without a radical overhaul of the police, there was a deep contrast between their behaviour and the new ideas of what South Africa was meant to be.
Stuurman points out that police officers were expected to respect “people who suddenly had rights’’ in ways they never had before.
Crime can be an antagonistic word because it’s meant to define the things, and subsequently the people, that disrupt and threaten safety. The societal presumption is that there should be a straight line from infraction to punishment.
But the way crime and punishment function globally is much more cyclical, leaving little room to consider what conditions make crime possible.
Stuurman spends time in her book discussing issues such as “gangsterism” and conditions that give rise to crime.
She discusses the historical trends and formations of gangs and makes connections between corrupt weapon sales and the legacy of forced removals and dispossession that create a lack of choice and opportunity. She ultimately makes the case to invest more in neighbourhoods than in the policing of them.
She argues in Can We Be Safe? that policing produces not only no safety, but also anti-blackness.
Through numerous case studies of police reform commissions and police brutality, it becomes clear that the police and the military have historically been unable to reduce crime that deeply affects citizens’ sense of safety.
Instead, they overly police, harass and oftentimes violate those who are considered the people who carry out crime — ultimately people racialised as black.
Nthabiseng Nooe was arrested in 2015 in Sunnyside, Pretoria, after a party for making a comment that the police seemed to be causing havoc by harassing passersby and food vendors.
One of the plainclothes officers overheard her and asked whether she had something to say. They had a back and forth conversation during which Nooe asked why she was being spoken to in an accusatory and rude tone.
She and her friend were arrested, taken to the police station and held overnight. She was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
Nooe experienced further misogynistic harassment while in her holding cell, when officers suggested that if she continued to “speak back”, they would put male inmates in her cell. They were essentially threatening to allow several men to sexually assault her.
Nooe was released the next day and later went to court to get her charge removed from the record. She went a step further and sued the police.
It took Nooe three years and four months to win her case and a payout. The process was riddled with financial risk and bureaucracy. The case had numerous delays and the police officers on trial made Nooe out to be an “angry” and “privileged” black woman.
Despite winning the case, Nooe says she did not get “accountability”.
“Accountability is addressing the issue, you know, pulling it out from its roots and looking at the way that these people behave, contrasting how they function with how they’re supposed to function and dealing with that. But what I got was not accountability.”
Nooe’s case exemplifies how exclusionary, dysfunctional and unobtainable justice can be.
One of the state institutions that is meant to hold the police accountable is the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), established in 2012 to provide independent oversight of the police. Some of the directorate’s many roles are to investigate complaints of police assault, torture and excessive use of force, as well as to implement policy for the police.
Daneel Knoetze, the editor of the online news site, Viewfinder, has examined what the directorate’s complaint data says about the nature of police brutality in South Africa, and why accountability continues to not be achieved.
He emphasises that police accountability is complex and varied, noting three issues that prevent the directorate being an effective state institution.
First, the Ipid relies on the police to implement its policy recommendations, making it easy for the police to ignore or use loopholes to exonerate their colleagues.
The second issue is the average caseload of an IPID officer is about 250 cases, resulting in strain and lack of quality management.
Third, the directorate is underfunded.
Additionally, the general mistrust of the police is highly profitable for South Africa’s vast and profitable private security industry.
Both the perceived incompetence of the police and the fear of no safety drive and maintain the private security industry — an industry that itself lacks robust regulation.
The cost of police brutality is high, with the most obvious cost being the loss of human life.
The 2020 lockdown showed disparities in policing, where the enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown rules resulted in violence and death in black and coloured working-class neighbourhoods and townships in the name of regulations, while gatherings in predominantly affluent white spaces resulted in zero deaths when police were present.
In addition to deaths caused by police, the cost of settling abuse, torture and loss of income cases as a result of police violence costs South Africa millions of rands a year.
Stuurman’s book concludes by offering up strategies and ideas that can foster an abolitionist vision in South Africa.
She argues that the decriminalisation of drug use and sex work could lead to a major transformation of the police because an opportunity would emerge to both reduce contact with the police and simultaneously question what South Africa’s prisons are for.
“I think the abolition, for me, looks like obviously a slow and steady and progressive sort of process, but I think abolition in South Africa looks like a far more functional civil society.
“It’s far more of a functional and capable state that meets people’s basic needs, and that doesn’t force, particularly working-class and poor people, into making completely impossible decisions or impossible choices all the time. And there should be less spending on the police because … it’s not the solution to crime,” Stuurman says.
Kim M Reynolds is a critical media scholar, tech and surveillance researcher, writer and artist from Ohio in the US, based in Cape Town