Twitter and a new criminal type

What might the fascination in displaying and seeing the body of “the criminal” tell us about South Africa today?

South African Police Minister General Bheki Cele at the law enforcement parade. Image credit Government of South Africa via Flickr CC.

In July 2018, the popular Twitter account run by Yusuf Abramjee (@Abramjee), a self-described “anti-crime activist” and former CEO of popular South African radio staion Radio 702, posted photos of four men, arrested allegedly for cash-in-transit robberies in Gauteng province. In spite of Abramjee’s triumphant tone, some followers were dissatisfied. They were unhappy with the way the men were pictured–each handcuffed and faced away from camera. “Why are they letting them hide their faces,” one comment reads, “we deserve to know them.” Another: “am I the only one who wants to see their faces?” Still others: “Show them to us,” “show us their faces,” “please show their faces;” “we need to see their faces.”

These comments are by no means exceptional. In recent years, police officials and crime-obsessed accounts like Abramjee’s have taken to posting photos of arrestees, obscuring their faces in part or in whole in keeping with the Police Act of 1995. Though they are aimed at demonstrating the efficacy of the cops, these posts always spark indignation that, as one user put it, “crime committers’ faces are always hidden.”

What does one make of this seemingly sincere desire to see the faces of “criminals?” Commenters offer a range of justifications for their demands. Obscuring faces prevents witnesses to other offenses from coming forward; it affords “criminals” rights to privacy they don’t deserve; it allows the cops to stage fake arrests; it prevents citizens from “knowing” them when they show up on their “doorstep.”

As Nicolas Smith points out in his recent book, these attitudes evidence how South Africans distrust not only law enforcement, but also the country’s liberal legal order itself, which many South Africans say values due process too much and often lets the guilty go free. Knowing the face of “the criminal” then allows citizens to hold government to account or to defend themselves in the event that the state fails to provide safety. Indeed, much of “crime Twitter,” replete with recriminations against the cops and BOLOs (“be on the lookout”) for citizens, operates under this logic. It is part civil society, part neighborhood watch.

But this seems to be only part of the picture. Commenters are indignant even when those pictured have [click warning: graphic violence] been shot dead by the police and pose no possible threat. What then do the faces of dead “criminals” reveal? And what might this fascination in displaying and seeing the body of “the criminal” tell us about South Africa today?

In considering this question, it is useful to remember that for much of South African history the imagined figure of the criminal has been remarkably stable. White settler rule engineered a legal regime geared around the criminalization of black labor, leisure, and resistance. And as the state monopolized wealth and power for the minority, it forced those it dispossessed into criminalized economies to survive. The results were predictable. One need not read clippings from the turn-of-the-century Rand Daily Mail’s “Police Courts” section to know that the country has long been fixed on the young, poor, black man as the figure of criminality par excellence. (The Rand Daily Mail would later became associated with liberal opposition to apartheid; its early days, however, betrays its more racist roots.)

South Africa, of course, is not unique in this respect. The United States and Brazil, among other nations, have been built on similar racist libels. And Stuart Hall famously documented how in the 1970s, the UK became panicked over “muggings,” which newspapers and television attributed to “black youths.” Indeed, Hall’s analysis might lend insight into this puzzling fascination with seeing the face of “criminals” today. In his book Policing the Crisis, Hall argues what was unprecedented about “mugging” was not the crime itself—a form of petty theft—but the label, imported by British media from the US and laden with connotations of racial enmity. The effect was the invention of a new criminal type, “the mugger,” a threat against which the state could re-build its legitimacy among the white segment of the working class in a moment of political and economic crisis.

South Africa is in the midst of a political and economic crisis at least as deep that of the 1970s UK’s. But despite decades of panic over crime and a brutal policing apparatus, the country lacks a new criminal type to mobilize against. The inherited figure of the criminal is so freighted with the baggage of apartheid and too close to a description of the majority of men in the country. It survives very uneasily alongside the ruling ideology of rainbowism and black uplift. One can glimpse this mismatch in the public comments of Police Minister Bheki Cele who often ends up scolding, rather than acquiescing to communities demanding greater safety. At a recent “crime imbizo,” Cele lectured his audience in isiZulu, saying: “Azik’ izigebengu e’fike imvula. Wonke ama-criminals aphuma ezindl’enu” (There is no rain that rains criminals. All criminals come from your houses). Needless to say, accusing your constituents of being “criminals” is not the soundest electoral strategy.

But if Cele cannot find his way beyond the contradiction between the regnant criminal type and the exigencies of the contemporary crisis, those on Twitter might have a better view on things. Indeed, in the online fascination with displaying and seeing the body of “the criminal”—even of those deceased, we can glimpse users trying to work inductively, developing a generalizable criminal type by reading closely the bodies of arrestees. The hidden face, however, presents a certain blockage to this process: it veils what might be the telltale signs.

By wanting to read the body in its fullness, commenters—who are mostly black South Africans—demonstrate the inadequacy of a purely race-based criminal type. But crucially, they do not dispose of its logic entirely. The convenience of race, after all, lay in its illusory ability to make criminality into something that was inherent to a definite group of people, and legible—able to read off the body itself. By subscribing to the notion that there exists a group of people who are essentially and visibly “criminals,” users seem to be trying to develop a new criminal type in the image of its predecessor.

In this strange way, hiding the faces of “criminals” facilitates, rather than blocks, citizens’ ability “to know them.” After all, there are no telltale signs. Should they be presented, nothing would be revealed. They would be familiar faces, those of neighbors, relatives, friends, acquaintances—victimized like the majority of South Africans by decades lost to austerity, corruption, and grinding inequality.

Further Reading

Crime in South Africa

The cover and title of the journalist Don Pinnock’s Gang Town seem to promise a sensational tour of meth dens and children caught in the crossfire.  Instead, the book patiently explains something far more grim: what happens when the legacy of …