On the 14th of September, members of the South African Police Services (SAPS) killed six alleged would-be cash heist robbers in a shootout in Pretoria. The story was paraded in the media like a national sports team returning home with a trophy. Journalists asked police whether it was true they had ambushed the robbers and whether they had fired on them from a police helicopter as they fled. The queries were neither confirmed nor denied. Perhaps they will remain as such. The bad guys are dead and perhaps that's what's important. Comments left on a leading online news site suggest as much:
• "Well done to the cops. Bastards should be squashed like cockroaches because that's the way they deserve to die."
• "Anyone who uses a dangerous weapon to commit a crime (robbery, theft, rape) should be KILLED DEAD...KILL these thugs, no mercy!"
• ""Yeah baby! Awesome stuff SAPS well done! Now for the other million violent savage criminals in this country."
• "The best way is to give them opportunity to try and fight back and then mow them down like flies"
• "Kill them all!"
• "This is what we've been waiting for. Prepare to be taken out. Your life or ours."
• "Well done SAPS, 6 less scumbags for us to fear. This is the only way to deal with such criminals!"
These statements echo the trauma of a South African consciousness plagued by crime. Tuesday's release of the 2008/09 crime statistics revealed concerning rises in house and business robberies in the country, but saw a slight decline in murder and violent crime overall. Despite the statistical decline in overall violent crime, the violence employed is seen by many to be increasingly gratuitous, while citizens feel increasingly vulnerable.
Seemingly playing up to a public desire for vengeance, the Minister of Police is seeking to amend legislation to extend the rights of police to use lethal force. The move has been accompanied by increasingly violent rhetoric from politicians in recent months, often insinuating that police should shoot to kill.
It is the state's prerogative to monopolise force (and violence) in order to maintain a degree of peace. But as South Africans know, to achieve this is not easy. Police are the most visible custodians of the right to legally-sanctioned force. Three weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy was allegedly shot dead by Ekhuruleni metro police officers. The boy was attending a party, which police were trying to break up. They allegedly fired birdshot at the crowd rather than rubber bullets, with pellets hitting the boy in the head, chest and groin, and unfortunately leading to his death.
Although policing has become pluralized (shared among police, private security, car guards, neighbourhood watches, CCTV, etc.), traditional policing remains central to the modern state. Modern police as "norm" enforcers developed most rapidly where there were substantial divisions of labour, and hand-in-hand with inequality - a feature central to deliberations on the causes of crime.
Long before the neo-liberal state Emile Durkheim posited that the forced division of labour created perpetual dissatisfaction among citizens socialized to pursue goals which societal structures held beyond their reach. It is easy enough to see anomie in contemporary South Africa where the nation-building project has espoused notions of a country "alive with possibilities", while a market driven economy lines the pockets of a shrinking economic elite and millions struggle to survive. Currently, this struggle is manifesting in a flurry of national and localized strikes. Some protests have seen strikers turning violent, handing the elite more evidence with which to deligitimise the class struggle, further legitimizing the state's use of force. In late July, President Zuma warned strikers that violence and disorder would be met with arrest. But violent protests continued.
One recent strike involved taxi associations (particularly in Johannesburg), and another the South African National Defense Force (SANDF). The former was in response to the launch of the much-anticipated Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system in Johannesburg at the beginning of the month. The BRT is touted as an affordable, safe and efficient public transport system. Taxi operators believe it challenges their livelihoods. During the industrial action a taxi boss perceived to be sympathetic to the BRT was gunned down and a BRT bus was peppered with bullets in a drive by attackers.
At the same time, striking soldiers were pictured on television, rolling and leopard crawling across the lawns of the Union Buildings, and firing imaginary machine guns in the air. Police responded with Foucauldian irony and a hail of rubber bullets. The next day the Minister of Defense was put under special guard after kidnapping threats were made against her. The SANDF strike action was widely condemned by government but the soldiers' message was clear: Pay us what we are worth.
Crime, violence and agencies of control are products of the structures and cultures in which they manifest. This includes the patchwork of events listed above, from the would-be cash heist robbers killed two weeks ago, to the police who shot them (and who shot the teenage boy, and who fired at SANDF members). It includes the taxi drivers threatening violence against a much needed transport system, and the soldiers mock-firing imaginary machine guns at a symbol of state power. It includes the voices of privilege on online news sights and the structures of inequality that ensure they remain a tiny elite.
Written by: Andrew Faull, Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)