In this extract from a longer interview conducted by Amandla! Vearey outlines a brief history of policing methodology in Cape Town and a critique based on the intersection between class/capital/space in terms of how crime arises and policing functions in Cape Town
A!: Can you give us a short summary of the history of the particular type of policing we have in Cape Town?
JV: In the colonial period policing served the interests of narrowly protecting capital in the mining sectior. So a lot of Scotland Yard, a lot of British policy activity, was around the mines, like in the then Rhodesia and or Nyasaland – it was about the police was there to protect the mines. As agricultural production became viable for export in the colonies to invest, policing was about protecting that. And if you literally historically mapped the presence of what we would now call police precincts, then they are situated in a way to fulfil this much, which explains why prior to 1994 you have low resources in Mitchells Plain and all these kind of places and more resources in Camps Bay. So those are the types of things that you should first think – the geographical distribution of police was determined by the protection of class interests
A!: So there was virtually no investment in ‘normal’ policing in working-class areas?
JV: No, no investment in detective work, in community policing. Gangs weren’t tackled as a particular problem. Drugs was not even considered a serious issue back then. If you take Elsies River, for example, the police station was in Epping. [indistinct] as it was a barrier it was Ruiterwacht and the rest of Elsies River. That’s what it was about. Now the policing of Elsies River was more about Ruiterwacht and to prevent Elsies from coming to affect Ruiterwacht. Spatially that’s the way policing manifested itself in this country. It was more an instrument of social and political control rather than classical policing – and that’s why detectives were understaffed in these areas, that’s why they only had a visible policing capability really and the specialised investigations were kept to investigate what they called ‘white crimes’.
A!: In Hanover Park, where I grew up in the seventies, the cop station was in Lansdowne.
JV: Yes, yes. It was not about the police station being a place that is a bastion of safety for the people around. There was the policeman being a place that is a fort for social control, political control. That is essentially what the feature of it was. And this continued right up until 1994. But I think that’s the important thing: so you’re not dealing, they history of putting police stations in working class areas to protect their residents from crime, you are dealing with policing as a part of social control.
Let’s take an example: the Hard Livings, it was formed in 1983 as it is now. The Staggie brothers had used gang formations long before that, going back to the seventies; he himself has a record that goes back to 1971. Not a long record. But the formation of the Hard Livings in the form in which we understand it, it’s a phenomenon of the eighties – between the eighties to around 1994 it grew into the power that it was. The Americans gang was formed in the mid-eighties. The Mongrels, they go even back further, they go back to District Six. None of what we see here is new. In actual fact their growth unfettered occurred under apartheid. That’s when the careers of gangsters were shaped. So that’s the point I need you to understand: because policing was not focused; it’s only post-1994 when we start having things in the ’96 like the organised crime legislation that starts to look at crime in these areas as an organised phenomenon. Before that the understanding of organised crime was sophisticated mafia notions – which was nonsense. That was real organised crime what was happening there. So there was that type of thing that is important to understand.
In policing strategy in the birth under Fivaz it was all about still continuing the same things and maintaining the same thing. Until we came in in the ’95 period with a very clear agenda and our background, that firstly policing is not about the security of the state, it’s about the security of the people. Now that’s a fundamental mind shift because if you say it’s about the safety and security of the people, it means all our resources and how you put down your organisational footprint and your strategy, your eyes around protecting the people and serving their interests; that becomes the prime goal. And previously it was the state, so it was about fortifying the state through a means of social and political control. The policing exercise is to prevent the natives from getting restless, to put it like in the way colonial policing happens; the police function was to keep the natives from getting restless. So that was [what] it was literally about.
This approach enforces a different view of how the police’s resources should be distributed. And it’s only after Fivaz left that we really came to say, look, the first phase of now, we must ensure that there’s proper resourcing. That is when we stopped the building of security police, police sourcing certain stations more, built stations in Khayelitsha, expanded the policing in Nyanga, built the Elsies River police station – that is all the new stations in the period of that particular type of thinking. The whole shift in resourcing in that direction. And by no means are we there yet because we’re still sitting with the structural footprint of where the service is located in relation to an old apartheid model. There’s no way you can say Mitchells Plain police station is central to Mitchells Plain while most of the crime is in Tafelsig. Do you understand what I’m trying to get to? But that is the process we undertook. We are by no means there totally but I think, coming back to the gang type of formation – so I already told you all these gangs were there, we inherited them, we found them outside and we found them there. It’s only through the organised crime legislation and those types of things that we were able to track them. But I want to come to one distinct thing that reflects as different class analysis amongst the progressive police force. There is still from a class perspective different ways of policing different classes. This is from a class analysis – to me it’s tantamount to sometimes criminalising the poor. You know John Pape?
A!: You mean James Kilgore?
JV: Ja, he describes his model best in a study we’ve done on American school and the police. As taking that model it’s a type of model that we’ve got into bound to led to knocking heads with the metro police here where we’re not going onto schools in Manenberg . In Mitchells Plain I refuse to search schools because what this type of policing does, it categorises people in general and it assumes that in order to get to the specific chap who’s a problem I need to just treat this big collective as the problem. So I go search the school. I go cordon off Manenberg and search then from one part of the area to another to find one guy in a school sounds nice to militarists in policing and to some of the people in Camps Bay who want to know whether the police are doing something – all these very operationalised models of policing. So that is the first problem, but that criminalises people.
An example of issues of class influencing urban policing is prevalent in the way liquor is policed. In working-class areas like Nyanga or Khayelitsha there is often blanket justification for closure of shebeens and harder forms of policing against liquor outlets as compared to liquor outlets [in] the middle-class and tourist-centred urban areas – at the cost of low-level to no policing of the supply chain of this liquor by big companies like SAB. To support this the role of liquor is often over-generalised as a primary causal factor as opposed to other predisposing material conditions such as lack of housing, basic services and opportunities for the youth. It is a classic example of the middle class’s moralism influencing police priorities.
A!: Following your critique, what would an alternate policing strategy look like?
JV: In Mitchell’s Plain we attempt to practice what we call people’s policing, which essentially focuses on building community capacity through collective mobilisation against crime. The emphasis is on activity that strengthens joint police and community solidarity such as street committees, neighbourhood watches and mass based campaigns against gangs. This is distinctively different from what occurs in your middle-class areas, where community participation often involves the middle class and their insular methods and forms of organisation. Is it for this reason that organisations based upon an advocacy model with funded mandates are not sustainable forms of interventions against crime in working-class areas, because they disempower grassroots community agency by channelling militant collective energy into insular activity based on an almost purely legalistic approach such as the commission of inquiry approach championed by the SJC. In essence ‘activism’ becomes a form of lobbying according to this strategy.
A!: Can you expand on the link between people’s policing and the material conditions conducive to crime?
JV: Where did we stop by trying to explain the footprint of policing here and the different approaches? But like I said, part of people’s policing, the notion of it, is if you understand the material conditions that you face – that is the level that any crime prevention strategy must first penetrate – and that is not the police’s job. Take a simple crime: domestic violence which is the predominant form of violent crime in all the gang areas too, even higher than gang violence. But if you look at the circumstances under which that happens, you have three generations of family within the same flat, same maisonette or some flat in Hanover Park or in Manenberg, together with backyard dwellers. The propensity of tension constantly jostling in the environment is highly strong, is very, very strong. The risk of sexual abuse sometimes is highly strong. It’s highly probable in that particular environment – we have much more of those congestions. Therefore for us it’s not surprising that our high rate of sexual offences comes from precisely those circumstances. I’m not saying it’s different here but I want to highlight the point how domestic violence needs a particular type of policing. You go and you speak to people: ‘Why are you fighting here?’ And people start talking like that. Then you start realising how much a simple thing like housing in the long term contributes to some of these things, to socialising, to a culture of socialisation into violence.
Let’s say a robber: a robber is an opportunist, so wherever the environment feeds perfect conditions for concealment if he does his job or where you are more vulnerable, they will take that particular opportunity to do that. So there are no lights in a place; it’s heaven. They’ve got the natural cover of a constant environment that conceals me. So a simple material circumstance like that does it. If there are no roads in this place there are no controlled areas where police can patrol, where you can move safely with a cover that police are patrolling.
In Freedom Park in Mitchells Plain – and also think about not only Freedom Park, the whole of certain parts of Makhaza, Enkanini and those areas of Khayelitsha – you can’t call and tell 10111 I live at number this, because there’s no infrastructure, there’s no recognition of your informal housing that comes on our system. The municipal recognition of property owners comes with the ownership of the property or the renting of the property from the state. They don’t accommodate for these environments out there. We were trying to tell the Social Justice Coalition, go and look at those things. Go look at the fact that there’s no lighting. You want to talk about the high risk of rape. Go look at the fact that you have communal toilets that people have to go, women have to go to in the middle of the night – and that’s the infrastructure you put down. You’re bound to create this; your material conditions are producing the risk that leads to the crime. So that’s a practical example, and if you take this model there or you take it wherever, it’s the same in the rural areas, it’s the same type of environment: the material conditions determine the effectiveness or the efficiency of policing – because we don’t ride horses anymore. And people must be able to communicate with us in order to get us there in an emergency and you can’t do that in the middle of Enkanini and tell us where you live. So that’s the sense in which we understand people’s policing, so that’s the one dimension of the argument that we have.
The second part of it: most of the crimes that produce organised crime is a very gang-related small minute component of criminal activity in this country. It’s only because we see massive shootouts and gang leaders who are glamorised that we probably think this is the prevalence of the footprint of crime. The bulk of crime relates to social fabric issues; the domestic violence, the social-heated violence between people, the robbery. And we’re not talking about the robbery to sell, not this romantic notion of robbery to sell. The highest statistic in Mitchells Plain of crime besides domestic violence is shoplifting. The people who are doing shoplifting are not youngsters. The stuff that they are taking from Woolworths and Pick n Pay in the Promenade is food. So the criminality that I am talking about in the working-class areas is not driven by the entrepreneurial type of drug dealing and organised criminal activity. So the policing of that crime requires people’s involvement from two perspectives. Let’s take firstly the poor material conditions in Freedom Park and that type of thing. We would see, I would see it as important for community structures to exist, to agitate for those conditions to appear, as part of normal policing. So if I have a street committee, or a flat committee, or a shack committee, or whatever you call it in that structure at grassroots level, before they start talking about other issues one of the fundamental parts of the job would be to agitate towards improving the environment to support effective policing in working-class areas. The civil struggles around normal basic service delivery is important for policing, okay. Putting down, for example, adequate water supply infrastructure in an informal settlement is fundamental to policing. I always tell people the story of Jeffrey Nongwe at Crossroads and that. That period, a lot of the manipulation that the then military intelligence did was to, if they’re working with you as a warlord, they’d place all the resources, like a tap, a simple thing like a tap, close to you, so you draw all the people to the tap and that becomes a form of political control. So, simple things like that can generate – in this case it wasn’t the case – but can generate tension between people. Because why is it with Nongwe? Why are all the facilities close to the hostels and not amongst us? So those things generate conflict. In a gang environment it’s even worse. Because the gangs position their control around areas where these key resources, where they are scarce, might be located. So that you know you come through them to access them. So those are the problems that this type of thing … So with our model, organising and mobilising people at the most basic level – I’m not talking about advocacy groups here – we have a problem with people speaking on behalf of other people and taking collective militancy and channelling it into court cases. You’re destroying it; you demobilise people, disempower people. So that is the way we, for example Mitchells Plain, organise street committees, why it’s a normal part of our language. It’s contrary to the city model, of course, and those kinds of things. So, we empower people to deal with the social issues to fight crime and also the material issues which generate the risk of it.
A: On this point, how would you respond to activists, in areas like Mannenberg saying that the city actually doesn’t want strong community organisations?
JV: We live in a neoliberal world, you know. Nobody wants strong civil organisations, that can’t be controlled or co-opted. If they can have advocacy groups that channel militancy, de-collectivise it and put it into court cases, then they can fight on their terms. They can’t fight organised mobilisation. Understand, their default position is this securocratic one. Hence the language you get from the city: Why are you not arresting them out on the highway, why are you not doing that? You know, the classic response: Why are you not bringing the army? I mean, to deal with what? To do what? That is the type of thing, so I agree, but that is part of a broader type of liberalist politics that wants to deal with the poor as a non-mobilised force.
The militarised way of policing that is often demanded by middle-class academics and pundits often looks at what happens on the Cape Flats from a containment point of view. Where class mapping of our urban geography actually informs the demand for distinctly different types of policing from Constantia and Camps Bay to your more petit-bourgeois and working class areas. This type of discriminatory policing along class lines is informed by a material urban politics which looks at the city firstly in terms of the primary interests of where the bourgeoisie and middle class settles or business is centred. And in descending importance to the more working-class areas which are regarded as ‘the periphery’. Where the cultural life of the city as projected in the tourist angled depictions of the city is primarily commodified for the middle class and cultural life on the Cape Flats – the so-called ‘periphery’ is primarily considered subaltern. Woodstock, therefore, becomes a place where need to protect the middle class from.