Bad old policing habits die hard in the new SA

31 December 2011 - 02:19 By Jonny Steinberg
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Image: Sunday Times

Cops still treat young black men like farm animals on Friday night 'revenge' patrols

On an evening in October 2005, police officers in Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape arrested a young orange-picker for public drunkenness. His name was Xolani Hobongwana. The officers led him into the back of their van, drove him to the police station and discovered, on arrival, that he had passed out on the journey.

A discussion ensued on how they were to get an unconscious man into the cells. The sergeant delegated to solve the problem lowered Hobongwana onto a wheelbarrow, wheeled him into the building and tipped him head-first into the holding cells. He landed with a thwack that resounded through the building.

Hobongwana spent the night on the floor groaning in pain, took a taxi home in the morning and collapsed.

By the following day, he was lying in a ward in a Port Elizabeth hospital, having been diagnosed with a fractured neck.

Last month, he successfully sued the police for damages.

When I read about Hobongwana's story in The Times a couple of weeks ago, a thousand memories came back to me. I knew exactly what had happened to him. I had seen it over and over again.

In the mid-2000s, around the time Hobongwana broke his neck, I spent several hundred hours observing police patrols in various parts of South Africa.

Friday nights were always the same. Every spare officer and vehicle would be corralled into service. At dusk, the cops would stand around in the station forecourt revving themselves up on adrenaline and caffeine. And then, about midway through the evening, they would be unleashed onto the surrounding township.

They would drive up and down the streets, and whenever they saw a young man, they would pull up alongside him, throw him against the nearest wall and smell his breath. If he failed their rule-of-thumb test, he would be thrown into the back of the van. When it was full, the van would disgorge its captives into the holding cells and return to the township in search of more quarry.

To my mind, the most important purpose of this weekly ritual was catharsis. Throughout the week, the police felt put-upon, bullied and insulted. Friday nights were their revenge. Now they were licensed to gather in large numbers and treat young men like farm animals.

Among the most striking features of this weekly ritual is its age. Rounding up black men on urban streets is the oldest and bluntest colonial policing practice there is.

It was there right from the start, when Johannesburg was a young mining town and black men dared to stray from their labour compounds or from the homes of their employers and walk the streets at night. It was a rude reminder that public space was not theirs, that they would be tolerated in cities only if they lived narrow and channelled lives.

This herding of black men from public streets into vans became the signature of apartheid, its most recognisable feature. By the late 1960s, three-quarters of a million people were being arrested in this way every year.

Of all the old policing practices that might have lived on in the new order, it is amazing that this, the most crude and demeaning of them all, is the one that has most flourished. In the mid-1990s, a number of senior police officers, eager to impress their new political bosses, went off on study trips to Europe and the US to learn state-of-the-art policing. They came home talking a new and sophisticated language, about analysing the urban terrain for "risk factors" and thus preventing crime before it happened.

Commanders on the ground were told to work out what their particular "risk factors" were and concluded that the riskiest factors drifting around their jurisdictions were young men on Friday nights. And so the police went on their weekly herding expeditions, as they had done for the past century or more, but this time in the name of a new and imported language.

It is testimony, if there ever was any, that South Africa's police organisation is an unwieldy old machine, one that nobody has thus far mustered the energy or the will to turn around. It has been given new uniforms, its officers new titles, and the tasks it performs new names, but it grinds on as it always has.

What happened in 2005 to Xolani Hobongwana, a lowly orange-picker living in the second decade of South African democracy, might have happened to his father, his grandfather or his great-grandfather.

As things change, so they stay the same.

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