Impounded sandwiches

One major historical function of the police in South Africa remains: to manage the poor.

Image via Media Club South Africa on Flickr CC.

In early February, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department impounded sandwiches for sale by Itumeleng Lekomamyane, a trader in the downtown central business district. Both tragically and comically, the return of the now-stale sandwiches was made contingent on the payment of a R1,600 fine, or a little over $100. (The national minimum wage in South Africa is currently $1.34 per hour or $234 per month.)

The prominent Indian urbanist Gautam Bhan once remarked in a lecture that the trouble with South Africa is that the state was strong enough to police the poor, but not strong enough to deliver the growth and development that would actually make them less poor. The country’s urban poor are expelled en masse from the cities and relegated to the periphery, where they languish far from economic opportunity.

In contrast, he said, the Indian state is simply weak: too weak to help the poor, but also too weak to victimize them to the same degree. So, the urban poor occupy the best land in the city, close to the center and major economic nodes. As a result, while in both countries the poor mostly remain poor, in India they can at least walk to work. South Africa has, in a way, the worst of both worlds.

Bhan’s analysis describes perfectly what happened to Mr. Lekomamyane: he is one of the approximately 13 million South Africans of working age for whom the state has been unable to create or facilitate employment in the formal sector. As a result, he made his own work, by all accounts with great success. But the state, unable to resist exercising the power it does have, nonetheless criminalizes his business.

Modern policing has its origins in the repression of the working class. In the UK, the first police forces were established to manage a newly urbanized proletariat. In the American South, they grew out of the slave patrols organized by planters to track down their escaped property. And in South Africa they grew out of the colonial policing system, originally pioneered by the Royal Irish Constabulary to suppress anti-colonial sentiment by the natives of that island.

The Natal Mounted Police, the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police in the Eastern Cape, and the Cape Constabulary were all established in the 19th century to suppress the nonwhite populations in rural areas and “manage” their presence in cities. A hundred years later, the major function of the South African Police was to enforce the complicated system of labor control and wage suppression that constituted apartheid. And the Security Branch and associated secret police forces were explicitly tasked with preventing the emergence of organized resistance to the regime. The recently reopened inquest into the 1982 detention and resultant death of trade unionist Neil Aggett is currently a daily reminder of the tactics of the police to these ends.

As criminologist Jonny Steinberg has pointed out, the practices of the apartheid police quickly re-emerged in post-apartheid South Africa: “the old paramilitary model of exerting unilateral control over urban space quickly re-emerged: night-time invasions of township neighborhoods by squads of heavily armed men backed by airborne support; the indiscriminate arrest of young men by the truckload; widespread police violence both against detainees and on the streets.” Even the veneer of democratic reform was soon replaced by an explicitly remilitarized police force.

That’s not to say that the police today are an unreformed apartheid or colonial-era police force. Steinberg argues that they are serving multiple functions, and have multiple relationships with the civilian population. What seems beyond question, however, is that among others, one major historical function of the police remains: to manage the poor.

We see this in the placement of police stations to control entrance to and exit from settlements like Diepsloot, exactly where the apartheid police placed their stations. We see it in the deployment of armed police against protesters, just as colonial forces repressed opposition to occupying regimes. And we see it when street traders, making do for themselves when the state can do little for them, have their goods impounded by the metro police and their business otherwise prevented.

Lekomamyane is a sympathetic and charismatic figure, which is one reason why his story has received coverage and attention. But every day, in ways large and small, the police are doing what they have always done.

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