Policing the Lockdown in Cape Town

This blog was originally published on the Scottish Institute for Policing Research’s blog.

‘If only they could deploy more soldiers and police for effective enforcement’, Zukiswa wrote, efforts to contain Covid-19 might be successful. Like almost half of the residents in Khayelitsha, Zukiswa lives in informal housing. Throughout the crisis, she has seen little of the police or army in her area, save when they were closing down shebeens. During the Easter weekend, however, she was ‘traumatised’ when the Metro Police forcibly evicted residents of the informal settlement Empolweni from their homes and ‘harassed the people and abused them’.

Zukiswa’s sentiments are echoed in many of the diaries that we have received from occupations, informal settlements, and townships as part of the Lockdown Diaries project. Over the last five weeks, diarists have mirrored the complex and seemingly contradictory relationship that many people have with the police in marginalised spaces across the city: They simultaneously crave and castigate them.

Such responses are far from irrational. Rather, as research in South Africa has highlighted, what we are seeing at play is people’s attempts to reconcile three factors: what they think the police ought to do, what they expect the police to do and what they need the police to do in any given instance.

When people are calling on the police or calling for greater police visibility, they are drawing on the idea of what the police ought to be: a source of security and protection. Through their everyday behaviour the police communicate who belongs, and on what terms. When the police provide security and protection to people, this is often understood as a sign that their lives are valued. Conversely, when this protection is absent, it is easy to feel marginalised or abandoned. As Warren, in Hangberg, argued ‘We had minimal presence and activities by [the police]… it seems that they do not care about this community.” 

In other words, the police are constantly playing a symbolic as well as a practical role. This much is clear if we listen to the protests and petitions of citizens across South Africa: People do not crave police efficiency alone. The township of Khayelitsha where Zukiswa lives, for example, saw a  break-down in relations between the police and community in recent years. In 2012, a Commission of Inquiry was launched to tackle the issue. Notably, the grievances that residents shared with the commission were as much about the lack of visibility and respect from the police as they were about police inefficiency.

Being protected by the police is often understood to be a vital part of being included in the state. This does not mean, however, that the protection people seek is always the protection envisaged in the country’s constitution. Sometimes, people will seek, tolerate or rationalise violent forms of policing. A resident in informal settlement of Imizamo Yethu, for example, reasoned that ‘people will catch… coronavirus easy hence the law enforcement officers beat them up to stay at home.’ This can, however, be a tricky line to hold. Police violence is a fickle power for those on the margins to wield: the violence that they endorse for their own protection can quickly turn against them. Nonetheless, it is the idea that police ought to be protectors that often drives people to call for police visibility and police action.

In practice, this idea sits alongside what people expect the police to be in South Africa: a country where security services have been frequently used to communicate whose lives do not count and who does not belong. Despite the promises of a democratic South Africa in 1994, many of our diarists still find themselves ‘over policed and under protected’, on the basis of their race and class. ‘I think the lack of law enforcement in certain areas has to do with race (as with everything in this city)’, wrote Ntsiki, who lives in the Tamboeskloof occupation. ‘White people uptown are more protected than black people…To me it’s just typical Cape Town’. 

Often, when the police arrive in townships and informal settlements, what they deliver is far from the protection that people crave. As Oscar, who lives in the informal settlement of Shukushukuma, recalls, ‘An old lady…went to the toilet during this lockdown – the toilets are too far from her shack, it’s 5 minutes – the policeman and soldiers saw the old lady and beat her with sjambok’. Instead of being protected, people reported being assaulted, berated and demeaned for breaking lockdown protocols that they had no hope of observing. 

Knowing that the police and army can behave in this way with no guarantee of redress makes encounters with these officials extremely stressful. Jazzy D, a resident in the occupation in Woodstock, wrote to us whilst she was in town trying to pick up some money that a friend had transferred to her through Western Union. ‘I am so scared right now’, she wrote. She had been stopped by the army and police on her way into town. She had explained that she was picking up money for food shopping and they had said they would watch for her return. When the first two Western Union shops she went to refused to serve her, her fears grew. ‘God help me that I get this money and get the fuck off the street’ she wrote, ‘I don’t wana get sick or arrested. This is my last time out until covid 19 is gone.’

And yet, despite the fear and disdain that people may have for police officials, many do engage with them, often driven by how they need the police to intervene, on the books or off the books, in any given instance. The interactions that diarists have had with the police during the lockdown have largely been around permits they need for essential travel, which the police have seemed reticent to issue. Ntiski’s partner, for example, needed a permit to access their business in Langa. Having been sent back and forth between the police and municipality, police officials informed him that ‘they had in fact been ordered not to issue any more permits’ and that he should ‘try and explain to the police if he was stopped at a roadblock’. ‘One officer said if he runs into the wrong guy he might get arrested or fined’, Ntiski explained, ‘so maybe he should carry proof that he owns the business and maybe they will let him go.’ Leaving the police station, Ntiski’s partner found himself trying to negotiate around the laws that he had hoped would protect him.

This daily trade off between what people thought should, would, and needed to happen drives the seemingly contradictory interactions and discourses that surround the police in South Africa. Caught in the midst of these trade offs, many are wishing for a police force to include and protect them, whilst simultaneously playing a role in reproducing the police force they condemn. 

by Fiona Anciano, SJ Cooper-Knock, Mmeli Dube, Mfundo Majola and Boitumelo M. Papane (alphabetical order denotes equal authorship)


One thought on “Policing the Lockdown in Cape Town

  1. Lovkdowndiaries organisation has been an eye opener for me. Different views I hear from people residing in various townships has made me realise that the time is now to unite and work collectively in order to fight or stand for ourselves and the citizens who lives in the country.


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