Mail & Guardian

A new book asks the timeless question:

Ziyanda Stuurman’s new book critiques the South African police and their role in society

- COMMENT Kim M Reynolds

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 Britishcon­trolled 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 apartheidd­riven 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.

Stuurman ultimately makes the case to invest more in neighbourh­oods than in the policing of them

 ?? Photo: Delwyn Verasamy ?? No safety: Ziyanda Stuurman’s book interrogat­es the police’s inability to combat crime, their widespread use of violence and the difficulty of holding them properly accountabl­e for their actions.
Photo: Delwyn Verasamy No safety: Ziyanda Stuurman’s book interrogat­es the police’s inability to combat crime, their widespread use of violence and the difficulty of holding them properly accountabl­e for their actions.

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