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The police have failed SA, but by building communities of care, something better is possible

By our very nature, human beings like to understand issues in clear cut and tangible ways. We want to see inputs and outputs: we understand contributing factors, complications and outcomes. It is much harder for us to understand deeply complex and messy issues, particularly as they are unfolding and when we feel as if we have no idea what’s coming next. For our country, that’s precisely what happened over the past two weeks. Every day we woke up to news of protests: protests that turned to violence; violence that gave way to chaos and new developments we struggled to foresee.

In this current moment of reflection and, arguably, an inflection point for our society, there are no easy labels to stick on any person or group. It is possible to argue that some people acted out of desperation, frustration at poverty and inequality, and fear for the safety of their families, homes and communities. It is equally possible to argue that others acted out of criminal and political opportunism, racism and the belief that property was more important than lives. Most likely, it was all of these things at once.

Whatever viewpoint one chooses, one thing has become crystal clear: our intelligence and law enforcement agencies failed us. This is especially true at the level of political leadership. At the time of writing, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and Police Minister Bheki Cele are pointing fingers at each other and accusing one another of trying to blame them for the many system failures that led to a hobbled and seemingly haphazard response from law enforcement. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula spent days contradicting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s view that the events we saw were tantamount to an insurrection, before eventually agreeing with him. 

The failures of the South African Police Force (SAPS), in particular, were clear from the very beginning. They failed to get ahead of the co-ordinated efforts to disrupt the largest goods supply corridor in the country — the N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg — and the burning of 35 trucks at Mooi River toll plaza in KwaZulu-Natal. The violence seen there quickly spread across Durban and other areas of the province, and then to Johannesburg and other parts of Gauteng. Before long, the military was deployed and we were told they would augment the police force’s work in manning roadblocks, reopening critical traffic routes and restoring order. Over several days we saw the police outnumbered, seemingly outmanoeuvred and struggling to de-escalate the violence, even when they were present in affected communities. 

It is important to note that the correct police response was, in fact, not to shoot at people indiscriminately. The right to life trumps any and all property rights: there is no reasonable argument to be made that the police should have shot at or used excessive force to disperse crowds when violence and chaos broke out at shopping malls and warehouses. In those circumstances, the correct response was to secure some sort of perimeter, cordon off the area and ensure that no fires were lit or secondary acts of destruction took place. In light of this, the ultimate and delayed police response in the very same communities from which they were largely absent while the actual violence was occuring is frustrating and makes very little sense.

But although the incompetence of the SAPS in light of recent events has been breathtaking, in truth it is not surprising. South Africa ranks sixth in the world for our rate of murder and has one of the highest reported rates of rape and sexual assault (first for our rates of rape). In addition, many serious crimes reported to the police do not result in conviction and even those people who are convicted leave prison brutalised, unrehabilitated and likely to reoffend in the vast majority of cases. In short, we all know that the police are not very good at keeping us safe. Instead, what should take our collective breaths away, is this most recent reminder that the police are at their most brutally efficient when cracking down on the poor, the black and the masses.

At the instruction of Cele, the SAPS, military officers and metro police officials went door to door across inner-city Johannesburg, Alexandra and other communities affected by high levels of poverty and unemployment, to recover stolen goods and demand receipts for those goods they suspected to have been stolen during the violence and chaos. This expensive exercise (in terms of personnel hours and resource deployment) in exerting control over largely poor and black people was simply virtue signalling to the middle classes and business elites in this country: the police were doing the work of reminding poor people that there is a strict capitalist social order in place — and that they should know their place in it.

Even more galling than the hundreds of hours police and military personnel spent on these raids — the same type of random, warrantless raids that were declared illegal by the Johannesburg high court in July 2020 — was the news that the reclaimed goods would be destroyed instead of being returned to retailers or warehouses. This absurd waste of state resources to recover common retail goods that cannot fit into evidence rooms in police stations and warehouses across the country is an indictment not only on the police but on our society. Exposing communities to police and state violence to recover goods that even retailers and the corporate class deem worthless tears at our already tattered social fabric; it only serves to remind communities that their needs will never matter more than the illusion of “law and order”, even in the most unequal country in the world. 

Ramaphosa said that there would be a swift law enforcement response to the insurrection and that instigators would be tracked, traced and arrested. At the time of writing, six suspects are in custody and/or involved in legal proceedings. But that shouldn’t distract us from what the president also promised. By framing this as a security issue and spending more than R350-million to fund the SAPS response; allocating another R600-million on the deployment of 25 000 members of the South African National Defence Force until mid-October; and a budget transfer to the department of justice and correctional services to hold those arrested for violence in an already crowded prison system, the president took focus away from addressing the socioeconomic concerns that several people involved in the unrest clearly expressed. 

This is the core of the problem with the police in South Africa: there never seems to be enough money to meet the needs of the poor — even in the middle of a pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown — but there always seems to be more than enough money to police the poor. 

The president’s Sunday night announcement of the reintroduction of the social relief of distress grant of R350 a month until the end of March 2022 is a promising sign of solutions that meet the moment, but there is still a long way to go. It is a tragedy that it took the violence of the last few weeks to bring the grant back, but several civil society organisations should be applauded for their tireless advocacy, through the #PayTheGrants campaign to reinstate this relief measure, as well as their continued efforts for other long-term measures. 

The spectacular failure of the police to keep us safe — and of the state to remedy gross levels of poverty — has created not only soaring rates of violent crime and the entrenchment of socioeconomic inequality, but also the boom of the private security industry and vigilante justice. The private security industry in South Africa consists of  2.5-million security officers, 556 000 of whom are active, far outnumbering the fewer than 190 000 police officers the SAPS controls. And in communities that cannot afford private security, informal community watches and vigilante justice proliferates. It is not difficult to see how this evolved into suburban residents creating illegal roadblocks and racially profiling anyone who didn’t look like them when they felt abandoned by the police last week.

But where do we go from here? Do we keep investing in the police and private security, dedicating billions to those who have proven to us that their first priority is protecting capital and property? Do we keep isolating ourselves under apartheid’s legacy of racially segregated communities, buying our way into gated estates when we can? And do we, while funnelling our money into these securitised responses, continue grossly underfunding social services? We say no. 

South Africa’s socioeconomic situation is unsustainable. It has been for a while and attempting to maintain this status quo with force is no solution at all. Our focus must be on creating a society that is not characterised by class contradictions, racism and violence — state sanctioned or otherwise. By investing time and money in education; food security; and  physical and psychological healthcare, including free and voluntary addiction services; as well as job creation and social welfare systems, we can create a society in which people are not pushed to crime and violence, and prisons and police become obsolete.

Of course, even in this utopia, harm will still occur and communities will still feel the need to protect themselves. Given what we have seen recently, we must also invest in community safety initiatives that are not characterised by racism and force. The community responses we saw last week were neither new nor exceptional. Vigilante justice in South Africa — whether it is conducted by private security firms in the suburbs, or by community members in black, coloured and Indian townships and informal settlements where the police have been absent for years — is generally violent, discriminatory and disproportionate. 

This has been the case for years and years. Right now, any community safety response is likely to be seriously flawed, marred by the injustice in our society that we have failed to address, whether it be racism, class conflict or a heritage of violence. This is why abolition isn’t just about tearing down prisons and police stations, but building a better society and better institutions in their place.

When the president does eventually reveal the contours and details of the longer-term economic relief plan that he said would be tabled for the cabinet’s consideration “soon”, we need to see plans for a basic income grant, a jobs guarantee for those who can and want to work and, finally, a plan to meaningfully tackle the structural poverty, inequality and unemployment that led to the loss of 337 people’s lives and destruction totaling more than R20-billion in lost livelihoods.

While we wait, we should not lose hope. Already we have seen positive outcomes from the unrest from within communities themselves, sometimes with very little government intervention. The community police forum representatives of the Chesterville and Westville communities in KwaZulu-Natal signed an agreement denouncing vigilante violence and those who sought to stoke racial resentment during the unrest. Engagement sessions in Phoenix, outside Durban, sought to bring people together and allowed communities who ordinarily live side by side to engage with one another, express long-standing frustrations and demand accountability and transparency. This should be seen as a commendable effort towards building community trust and repairing relations after an extremely volatile situation in those communities in particular. 

The last few weeks, terrible as they have been, have shown us that South Africans are capable of rising up en masse against socioeconomic injustice, overwhelming agents of the state in the process, but also that communities are capable of coming together to create their own versions of safety that do not include the police. Neither of these approaches have been perfect, and in fact both can and should be subject to intense critique. But they are reminders of what could be possible if we put in the work to mobilise people around a vision for our society that is both principled and focused on building communities of care.


  • Ziyanda Stuurman is a Chevening and Fulbright alumna with degrees in security studies and international development. She is also the author of Can We Be Safe? The Future of Policing in South Africa. Sohela Surajpal holds an LLB and master’s of law in human rights and democratisation in Africa from the University of Pretoria. She is currently a law clerk at the Constitutional Court.