Extrajudicial Policing in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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In my new article, I engage with recent debates on how police officers and township residents grapple with violent crime under a democratic dispensation in South Africa. Police forces are increasingly countering criminality through periodic displays of spectacular violence, while township dwellers, deprived of social services and public security, punish malefactors themselves. By all indications, the results have not been positive. Rather than resolving social ills, paramilitary policing and vigilante justice have added further layers of criminality to South Africa’s subaltern landscape.

Violent crime is a burning issue in South Africa today. Contrary to much political commentary, pervasive criminality is not solely a product of administrative incompetence and corruption; antisocial elements also emerged from well-intentioned reforms. After taking power in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) moved to dismantle a terroristic security state with little regard for legality and due process. This effort generated admirable successes. For all its shortcomings, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission uncovered numerous state crimes and allowed victims of violence to voice their experiences in a democratized public sphere. In addition, constitutional safeguards permit civil dissent and forbid extralegal retaliation against government critics. Thus far, the ANC has fully complied with increasingly unfavorable electoral currents, without any appreciable efforts to rig or overturn outcomes.

However, political reforms did not precipitate downward distributions of wealth. ANC elites pursued policies geared toward globalizing a heavily sanctioned siege economy. Party leaders paired left-wing rhetoric with turbocharged neoliberal technocracy. Free market capitalism cut tariffs on imports and reduced public investments in essential infrastructure. This led to little improvement in living standards for the working poor and terrifyingly high levels of unemployment in black communities. Furthermore, globalization exposed South Africa to penetration by transnational criminal networks eager to enter its illicit markets. This had a particularly deleterious effect on efforts to control drug use in deprived urban areas. Strict adherence to procedural democracy could not restructure social decay. Socioeconomically excluded elements fell into violent struggles over illicit rackets only accessible to men with guns.

Post-apartheid South Africa made a promising start in civilianizing policing. The South African Police Service (SAPS) scaled back securitized law enforcement and prioritized investigative capacity building. To sustain professional capabilities, the SAPS retained old apartheid-era hands and overcame ideological resistance to appropriately resourcing white technical operatives in bomb squads and detective agencies. After several setbacks, the security cluster scored major successes against People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) terrorist cells. PAGAD was initially founded as an Islamic reform movement in the greater Cape Town area. Its rapid mutation into a violent militia dispensing lethal justice against drug dealers and what it regarded as social degenerates soon presented the new democratic state with a major security problem. It is to the ANC’s credit that it did not resort to wholesale extrajudicial killings in dealing with the PAGAD threat. In time, enough credible evidence was amassed against its leaders to produce successful court convictions and prison sentences. Whatever fragments remained of the movement thereafter became indistinguishable from other criminal gangs in places like Khayelitsha or Mitchells Plain.

Unfortunately, reformist tendencies did not last. Deteriorating service delivery and hollowed out administrative capacities during Jacob Zuma’s presidency (2009-2018) led to a sharp decline in the SAPS’s ability to provide basic protection to a broad public. Private security companies have filled this void. Many recruits take the coercive skills acquired in police training into the more lucrative private sector, preferring to guard gated suburban communities rather than patrol volatile informal settlements. A large majority of South Africans cannot afford private security and thus resort to mob justice or vigilante organizations to keep criminals at bay. Community responses are often lethal. Much of this violence originated in apartheid-era protests and state destabilization campaigns. Resistance groups and regime-aligned street thugs easily obtained military-grade weapons from various sources. Yet, post-apartheid police corruption also led to vast stores of firearms being sold to drug gangs. Some of these guns found their way into the hands of vigilante groups, resulting in more frequent extrajudicial killings.

Severe deficiencies in public policing are typically seen as signs of a failing state. Nonetheless, the SAPS responded to calls for tougher measures against crime by initiating a process of creeping militarization that has now fully coalesced. Special units go beyond their specific remits to confront wider forms of criminality. Heavily armed Tactical Response Teams (TRT), founded in 2009 to neutralize cash-in-transit heists, are often called out to perform public order functions they are not trained for. Senior police officials feel crimes can best be suppressed by more aggressive interdiction and higher caliber weaponry. Reaction rather than prevention is the norm.

When SAPS reacts to social protests with securitised countermeasures, lethal violence is the usual result. TRT and National Intervention Unit (NIU) deployments during the 2012 miners’ strike at Marikana escalated an already tense situation. Evidence gleaned from the Farlam Commission and subsequent scholarship indicates that TRT and NIU contingents fired on miners to avenge two policemen previously killed by the strikers. The killing of thirty-four miners on August 16, 2012, was an act of retaliation, a collective punishment by public execution. It had nothing to do with self-defense. ANC leaders provided officers and commanders involved in the massacre with protection from prosecution and none of the perpetrators were held to account.

In more recent years, paramilitary police units have used deadly force against criminal gangs to widespread public approval. The killing of nine suspected criminals in Mariannhill by the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Stabilization Team on April 3, 2024, garnered much praise on social media and national news outlets. This may well indicate increased police capacities to track down and neutralize violent gangs, but it is also a manifestation of governmental and societal frustration. The state’s inability to prevent violent criminality is triggering more violent police responses to criminal elements in local communities. Criminal behavior, or those perceived as engaging in it, deprives individuals of legal protections and exposes them to extreme retaliation. Yet, it is by no means clear how one is defined as a criminal and who does the defining. Social order is not guaranteed when the police take the law into their own hands.

Mesrob Vartavarian obtained a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and has taught history and international relations at Harvard and Tufts. His publications have appeared in Africa and the Journal of Southern African Studies. He is currently writing a book on wealth concentration in South Africa for Ohio University Press.

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