Ongoing revelations about the alleged ‘death squad’ activities of Durban’s Cato Manor organised crime unit have opened up a police scandal reminiscent of a crime conspiracy novel.
The South African police unit, according to a newspaper investigation last December, has been responsible for a range of extrajudicial assassinations throughout the province of KwaZulu-Natal including the Mexican drug gang-style assault on the SUV of taxi boss Magojela Ndimande in retaliation for the murder of another policeman. Subsequent reports suggested that the unit may have been involved in at least 51 other ‘suspicious’ deaths.
As the legal investigation continues, the unit has been disbanded and two police officials have been suspended for their failure to investigate the allegations. However, the unit has also gained some popular support with the creation of a Facebook group soliciting legal funds for the “heroic” officers involved.
While Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, has condemned the killings as the work of rogue elements, these revelations come after several years of bad publicity for the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Under the tenure of former Commissioner Bheki Cele, who last year was made to resign due to allegations of corruption, the service became associated with a supposed ‘shoot to kill’ policy. While officials claimed that this was a practical necessity when confronting dangerous criminals, there may well be a link between that policy and a rise in the number of deaths in custody and occasionally fatal violence against protesters and political dissidents.
In March 2010, under the banner of enforcing ‘command and control’ (itself a military concept) the service reverted to a military-style ranking system last used by the apartheid government.
This move was opposed by the Police and Prison Workers Union (POPCRU), and union activists have claimed that the new appellations have been used to enforce an authoritarian culture of obedience within the ranks, making police management ever more unaccountable.
This re-militarisation has occurred against the backdrop of an increasingly ‘securitocratic’ turn within the ANC government. Under the current administration of President Jacob Zuma, the secret services have ratcheted up their powers of surveillance and have moved to restrict public access to government information under the banner of ‘national security’.
These developments have often been judged as having sinister parallels with the fascism of the apartheid regime. But re-militarisation of the police can also be understood as much as a publicity effort as a coherent strategy, intended to create a disciplined image of a service which has gained a popular reputation for ineptitude and corruption.
For example, the changes in the ranking system were announced to the media before ordinary officers. And while commissioner, Cele’s own career embodied this dangerous cocktail of militarism and advertising. While calling for the police to “fight fire with fire”, for instance, he also found time to sell pictures of his extravagant wedding to local tabloids as well as donning the garb of a Mafia Don for the cover of a local men’s magazine, complete with the headline: “Robbers have met their match”.
Bellicose ‘shoot the bastards’ statements, however, also precede the Zuma years and officials have claimed that the media has exaggerated the novelty of recent developments.
Secretary of police, Jenny Irish-Quobosheane responded to bad press in 2009 (the year Zuma came to power), for example, by insisting that “the shootings haven’t just started in the last couple of months. The shooting of civilians by the police has been increasing over the past three years.”
This candid admission suggests that SAPS may have never fully broken with the counter-insurgency mentality of the apartheid years. But the ANC-led government is not the only source of militarisation within South African society.
While shrilly decrying the human rights violations of the ruling party, the opposition Democratic Alliance has shown a comparable readiness to use police violence for political ends in its governance of the Western Cape. The country also has a sprawling, and often heavily armed, private security complex which substantially outnumbers both the police and army. The built environment also reflects what urbanist Marcelo Lopes de Souza calls a “socio-psychological atmosphere of fear” with a mushrooming of gated communities, road closures and increasingly dense thickets of CCTV in city centres.
These overlapping developments are commonly perceived as a response to exceptional levels of violent crime. This, however, ignores the fact that the police are not exclusively neutral enforcers of public safety but also work to fortify a tenuous social order in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
As a case in point, police minster Mthethwa has suggested that the key future task of SAPS is not only to reduce crime but also to find sophisticated methods of managing the sometimes ferocious community protests, which regularly explode across the country.
But while this technocratic approach may be preferable to the violence which has often accompanied ‘public order’ policing, treating protests as another ‘security’ issue reveals how the government is obsessed with containing, rather than reducing, the fractures within South African society.
Furthermore, the idea of crime as an external threat to the formal economy ignores the intimate links between the ‘straight’ and underworld. As the byzantine details surrounding the killing of mining magnate Bret Kebble, which ultimately led to the imprisonment of Cele’s predecessor Jackie Selebi, revealed, organised crime flourishes within the nexus of state and corporate power.
And additionally, South Africa’s diffusions of wealth and consumer products in the midst of broader structural unemployment create a flourishing environment for violent entrepreneurialism.
As a capitalist nation, society is dominated by the attitude that everything has a price. While this is most often exposed in corruption scandals involving politicians raiding public spending, it is also evident in high rates of white-collar crime. But while mainstream media love to decry politicians as corrupt, state financial malfeasance invariably involves the collusion of ‘partners’ in the private sector.
South Africa’s traumatic recent history has led to a culture of everyday violence, which means that crime is a real threat to public safety. But this legitimate fear is often instrumentalised to enforce authoritarian policies that not only erode the country’s hard-earned democracy but also create new sources of anxiety and danger.
But in its combination of casino capitalism, official mendacity and an increasingly powerful state security apparatus, South Africa stands as an example of political maladies evident throughout the world. Like a number of police and military establishments across the globe, SAPS believe that with enough bullets, batons and body armour they can manage the violent manifestations of this chaotic order.
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