Some Thoughts on the “Police” Outfit in South Africa


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Hi, y’all it’s Pete. Jacob and I just returned to the states from Cape Town – the third stop of the Police Accountability Tour. It was my first visit to South Africa and as such, I wanted to share some thoughts about the situation there.

I definitely don’t claim to be an expert – I was there only six weeks – so if you have interest, I encourage you to do your own research on this topic.

What I can say with confidence is that almost no one trusts the police as an institution – and for good reason.

The police in South Africa, like the police in any nation-state, purport to provide protection and safety, but, as is clear, those things can never truly come from an institution that’s based on violence.

The same year the latest, disastrous iteration of the fed came into existence in the states, a few policing outfits consolidated to form the South African Police. In the early 1940s, when some those active with the national party said they had the right to control others within the arbitrary political boundary of South Africa, the police actively targeted those of a darker complexion. as they did so, they cited as justification text their colleagues had put on paper can called legislation. During the apartheid era the police targeted those deemed dissidents with counter-insurgency tactics, and at times, worked in conjunction with their friends in the military. Clearly, the “order” being enforced, wasn’t that based on justice or equality.

In 1994 the power perceived to exist with those who call themselves “government” shifted from the National Party to individuals active with the African National Congress, or ANC.

The South African Police was transitioned into the South Africa Police Services, or SAPS, which had at its core, a doctrine of community policing. Many were hopeful for policing apparatus that would be accountable to all. Yet that hasn’t exactly been delivered. In fact, the last two national police commissioners have been dismissed due to their corruption and unsavory actions.

Author Jonny Steinberg, in Thin Blue, The Unwritten Rules of Policing in South Africa, described the situation during this time. Under apartheid:

“blacks and whites lived in parallel worlds. White people assumed that providing security was the role of the state. Black people knew that if they wanted security, they would have to acquire it themselves … The transition to democracy has spread the condition of insecurity from black people to white… And so, for the first time in the history of South African security, whites are starting to behave like blacks. Abandoning the state as a failed protector, they are beginning to organize personal protection on open markets, out of ethnic solidarity, out of neighborliness.” (161)

Many have erected walls, topped with razor and electrical fencing, around their property. Entry points were also hardened – hardly a property exists where metal gates or bars don’t cover the doors and windows

And the security business is booming. In the middle- or well-off neighborhoods, vehicles promising “armed response” are much more common than police vehicles.

In the areas were folks don’t have the means to contract for the provision of security, inhabitants take it upon themselves to police their neighborhoods. Largely, community members don’t rely on the police and their structures to bring about justice. Last year, in the Western Cape, 80 people were killed due to vigilantism.

Honestly, it’s not surprising many don’t feel compelled to request help from the folks who steal their money under the guise of protecting them.

Consider the treatment of Mido Macia.

Macia was told by SAPS employees that his taxi was incorrectly parked. As journalist Redi Tlbabi noted, Macia “dared to ‘argue with the gods'” He was handcuffed to the back of a police vehicle, dragged down the street and later died from his injuries.

In Cape Town’s Central Business District, police employees could again be seen defaulting to heavy-handedness in their unjust treatment of Lunga Nono Goodman, a blind busker.

Those incidents are just two of an untold thousands that occur in South Africa. The reason they are known is because bystanders chose to film. So while proactive copwatching patrols to document the actions of police employees is not now common, opportunistic filming – recording if and when an incident unfolds – is happening. and it’s gathering traction.

Clearly the police do not operate in a vacuum. The economic situation on the ground definitely has significant impact.

Said R.W. Johnson, author of South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid,

“Whenever the ANC faced a choice between higher economic growth and strengthening control, it unhesitantly chose the latter. Cumulatively, this preference was to be a large cause of unemployment.”

“Official” figures put unemployment at 25% yet the real figure is likely higher. So it’s not surprising then that for many employed at SAPS, donning a badge isn’t a calling, it’s just a job.

Similar to the treatment of Native Americans in the states, the forced relocation of peoples into the Cape Flats or townships, coupled with the muddling of property rights in decades past, has resulted in a reality today where many millions find themselves living in environments where infrastructure many consider basic – running water, flushing toilets, electricity, waste removal – are lacking or non-existent.

The failure to supply those services despite political campaigns promising such change, has resulted in protests, referred to as service delivery strikes.

Instead of addressing the causes, political actors have, just like their predecessors during apartheid, used the police as a tool of repression.

Andries Tatane, an activist spearheading the call for changes, was killed at a service delivery strike after being beaten and shot with rubber bullets by SAPS employees.

At an incident that became known as the Marikana Massacre, SAPS employees injured over 70 and killed almost three dozen striking miners, many of whom had been shot in the back. Claims by police that they were acting in defense were not seen as truthful by most.

Thanks to the existence of video documentation of both of these incident millions are aware of police employee misdeeds.

In fact, recent surveys indicate that over 80% of people believe the police corrupt.

A big part of that corruption is spawned by drug prohibition

History and economics both show that merely dictating that a good or service in demand is banned, only drives its supply underground

Whether it’s cannabis – or dagga as its called here, tic, a methamphetamine made with rat poison and other chemicals, or any other substance said to be prohibited, drug prohibition brings-about a lucrative drug trade, which has given rise to gangsterism and perhaps more than anything else, fuels the widespread corruption of SAPS employees.

In her 2013 book, Crossing the Line: When Cops Become Criminals, which focused on the South Africa Police Service, Liza Grobler noted that

“The extent of crime and corruption in the police is difficult to measure, but the experts and the offenders say it ranges from ‘pretty bad’ to ‘huge’ … Drug-related and gang-related crimes are the most prevalent.” (242).

In fact, 90% residents of Cape Flats residents believe police corrupt and in cohorts with gangs.

Those involved with Pagad – People Against Gangsterism and Drugs – who view the police as inept to handle the problems, have targeted and slain dozens of gang leaders. Yet, because of the enormous profits to be made thanks to drug prohibition, it’s had little effect on gangsterism as others step up to fill the void.

The insidious relationship between gangsters and police employees continues not because it’s unknown, but because those involved have a vested interest in maintaining the Statist Quo, which is supported by the fact that attempts to address corruption within SAPS have been ignored, deflected or stymied by ANC lackeys.

Two outfits tasked with rooting out corruption – he Directorate of Special Operations and the Anti-Corruption Unit – were shut-down because they revealed the culture of corruption within SAPS.

Also telling is that the last two police commissioners were forced to step down after their own corruption and misdeeds came to light. Currently, over 1,500 SAPS employees have criminal records. Last year, over 1,300 SAPS employees were charged with crimes, including corruption, fraud, aiding an escapee, defeating the ends of justice, extortion, rape, and murder. And over 900 died when in police custody.

As Johnson noted:

“Few would have guessed in 1994 that the prisons would soon be worse than ever, that police torture would be worse than under apartheid and that far more prisoners would die in police custody. Yet the government treated such facts with complete unconcern, emphasizing how far the struggle had merely replaced one selfish elite by another.”

Instead of working to clean house, police handlers have peddled a get-tough-on-crime rhetoric, including the 2010 restricting of SAPS to a military hierarchy.

SAPS employees roughly 160,000 as police. From early 2004 until early 2011 SAPS employees claim to have lost over 20,000 firearms – it’s believed that the bulk were transferred, for a fee, into the hands of those involved in gangsterism.

Many outside the SAPS police apparatus and the ANC politicking have called for a complete retooling of SAPS but the saps folks and their handlers have become less transparent.

In recent years SAPS employees have had to sign agreements stating that they’d not personally talk with the media. all communication is now directed to a select few spin doctors who tout the “official line.”

After an incident in downtown Cape Town, when I was detained for 20min and my video footage deleted by Derejah, a local journalist who followed-up was told by police spokesperson Andre Traut that while filming of the police isn’t illegal, it could become illegal if the police take someone into custody.

Jacob and I made numerous attempts to get a police spokesperson on record about their policy related to filming the police including emails, phone calls and in-person visits. yet we never responded to. that includes individuals constables on the street, sector commanders in their office, Arno Lamaour, the provential commissioner of Western Cape, and the media center for SAPS. As for Andre Traut, who it seems never balks at providing the mainstream press with a soundbite, he replied, “I will absolutely not be doing an interview with you.”

I was later told off the record by a police employee that SAPS has no policy related to filming of the police and thus, the default to hostility when it is seen. That was the reaction gotten each time I was seen filming in Cape Town

So what’s the solution? To plead with those in the ANC and SAPS to change? To alter some text on paper conflated to be law? How has that worked?

The biggest positive game-changer happens from bottom-up actions. As video-enabled phones and the internet spread, opportunistic filming will increase, then the proactive filming of police. then eventually we can move past that to a world free from institutionalized violence

Will filming police solve everything? No. But,

Filming police will lessen heavy-handedness, as would-be aggressors are deterred.
Filming police will maximize accountability, as an objective record of actions is captured.
Filming police will accelerate positive changes, as situations become known globally and people realize the failures inherent in top-down centralized bureaucracies based on force and look to alternatives.

Pete Eyre

Pete Eyre is co-founder of As an advocate of peaceful, consensual interactions, he seeks to inject a message of complete liberty and self-government into the conversation of police accountability. Eyre went to undergrad and grad school for law enforcement, then spent time in DC as an intern at the Cato Institute, a Koch Fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance, Directer of Campus Outreach at the Institute for Humane Studies, Crasher-in-Chief at Bureaucrash, and as a contractor for the Future of Freedom Foundation. In 2009 he left the belly of the beast and hit the road with Motorhome Diaries and later co-founded Liberty On Tour. He spent time in New Hampshire home, and was involved with Free Keene, the Free State Project and The Daily Decrypt.