Criminal justice for the rising middle class

A new book on policing in South Africa wants to go beyond the usual call for reform. But adapting literature tuned for reform to the task of abolition is a difficult needle to thread.

Image credit Gilbert Sopakuwa via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The last 18 months have spurred a turnaround in the public discourse around policing in South Africa. South Africans have long decried the ineptitude of their police service. But the killings of Collins Khosa and Nathaniel Julies amidst the eruption of the popular uprisings against police violence in Palestine, Nigeria, Colombia, the US, and neighboring eSwatini have raised questions about whether South Africa, too, might have a problem with police brutality.

In her new book Can We Be Safe? The Future of Policing in South Africa, Ziyanda Stuurman sets out to bring the public face-to-face with the realities of the post-apartheid criminal justice system and chart a course to a better future. Drawing on her training in development and security policy, Stuurman details the many failures, brutalities, and inequities of the country’s police, courts, and prisons.

Written in a conversational style, Can We Be Safe? models itself as a guide to criminal justice for the rising middle class. Opening with a reflection about the author’s own disparate experiences of safety in Gugulethu and Sea Point, Stuurman points out that, while South Africans are united in their mistrust of the police and their fear of crime, it is often the voice of the least victimized who figure most prominently in conversations about crime and policing.

The outsized role of the middle class, she contends, distorts crime policy, encouraging punitive measures without regard for their efficacy or impact on poor and working people. Covering topics ranging from the Khayelitsha Commission, anti-gang operations, and IPID, Stuurman offers an accessible entry into the recent academic and policy literature on policing and criminal justice, especially that originating from those NGOs and think-tanks focused on criminal justice reform like the Institute of Security Studies.

But Can We Be Safe? goes beyond the usual call for reform, arguing that South Africans will only be able to secure true safety for all by pursuing police and prison abolition. Adapting literature tuned for reform to the task of abolition is a difficult needle to thread. And it is one that Can We Be Safe? does not always manage successfully.

A charter for abolition?

There are times where Stuurman’s arguments are at cross-purposes. In certain moments, Can We Be Safe? seems to take up a straightforward abolitionist position. She remarks on the futility of reform, calls for more social spending to end poverty and inequality, and advocates for decriminalizing drug use and sex work. At the close, she puts it explicitly: “We need a big, bold abolitionist future.”

But in other moments, Stuurman seems less sure. When discussing policing in Cape Town, she argues against deploying the military to fight gang violence, but also calls for “more detectives” and more “crime intelligence resources” to be deployed to poor areas. Closing her chapter on South African prisons, she shies away from advocating for abolishing the institutions altogether, instead asking somewhat limply: “Should these institutions still exist in the way we know them now?” At times, Stuurman’s equivocation turns her prose into a logical muddle. In one instance, she calls for a more equitable distribution of police resources to fight gang violence before adding that more resources won’t necessarily lead to safer communities.

By the close of Can We Be Safe?, Stuurman seems to have settled on the abolitionist position. She argues that “reform has only gotten us so far,” quotes many prominent abolitionists favorably, and speaks of the need to create “communities of care,” a key abolitionist concept. But even this is tempered by her identification of the Freedom Charter as the preferred model for abolition in South Africa. The desire to anchor abolition in South African history is understandable. But it is equally clear that, while the Freedom Charter is an admirable and progressive document, it is not an abolitionist one. In fact, it explicitly calls for imprisonment “for serious crimes against the people” and envisions a future where “the police and the army” exist as protectors of “the people.”

One can only speculate why Can We Be Safe? is intent on squaring the circle of abolition. After all, Stuurman seems more comfortable with police and prison reform. Her argument is most cogent when denouncing militarization, discrimination, and police corruption—in short, all those topics that have been the focus of liberal police and prison reformers. Indeed, Can We Be Safe? is one of the freshest calls for police reform to appear in the South African public sphere in many, many years.

The amnesia of reform

Stuurman’s decision to lean away from her reformist roots is puzzling. Perhaps, it stems from misunderstanding that abolitionists only support reforms that will roll back and eventually eliminate the power of police and prisons. Perhaps, it just seemed passé to argue for reform in what some are dubbing “the age of abolition.” (Reformism, it’s important to note here, is no less principled a position than abolitionism, though the two are often at odds.)

Or perhaps, it is because invoking abolition allows Can We Be Safe? to elude a thoroughgoing reckoning with the recent failure of police reform. While much of the book deals with the disastrous aftermath of the post-1994 reforms, it has less to say about the roots of that failure. When discussing the reforms of the 1990s, Stuurman argues that the efforts to bring the new SAPS in line with human rights principles floundered due to institutional and societal inertia. In short, too many officers committed to “the old way” of doing things. But the fact that there was institutional inertia gives us little sense of why inertia was allowed to persist. Or for that matter why the African National Congress (ANC), a movement powered in large part by popular antipathy for apartheid policing, would embrace law-and-order rhetoric at the height of its power?

In considering this puzzle, it is helpful to remember that South Africa’s experience with crime and policing is not unique. The turn towards “law-and-order” is a global phenomenon, visible everywhere from Brazil to the US, Jamaica to Nigeria, the UK to Indonesia. As social theorists Stuart Hall and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have argued, these punitive turns are key ways states and ruling elites have managed crises inherent to capitalism. Panics over crime weld the propertied into durable electoral constituencies despite austerity. Police and prisons offer investment opportunities, provide jobs for the working class, and contain the restless, often racialized, underclass.

By the time the “new South Africa” emerged, the playbook of “policing the crisis,” as Hall puts it, was already well in place (and indeed, had already been mobilized during the late apartheid period with some success). Faced with a newly unipolar world-order with the American empire at the center, it became incumbent on the ANC to prove that its youthful dalliance with communism was in the past. Fidelity to core capitalist principles like free market exchange, private property ownership, and fiscal and monetary discipline became the price of national liberation. Private and for-profit police became the safeguard of property, while the state police were charged with managing the disorders of a profoundly unequal and traumatized society.

As the post-apartheid ground on, it became clear that the aspirations of most South Africans were incompatible with a global capitalist system that is allergic to market intervention and wary of wealth redistribution. Escalating coercion became essential to dealing with this contradiction and making sure it didn’t erupt into open crisis. This is a global pattern most visible at Marikana, but no less present in the murder of Julies or Breonna Taylor. It is a pattern that ensured police reform failed, and will fail again.

The nation and the melancholy present

Read in this context, Can We Be Safe’s turn to the Freedom Charter as a blueprint for the future speaks to a kind of left-liberal melancholia. After all, we are living in the future of the Freedom Charter. It is a future where the wild hopes of national liberation were shipwrecked on the shoals of the global capitalist system.

Faced with the screaming misery of the present, it is little wonder that South African progressives, cloistered as they are in universities, think-tanks, and NGOs, find themselves looking to the mass democratic movements of the past for solace and inspiration. But it is crucial that one sees that past with absolute clarity, understanding the limitations of those “freedom dreams” along with their strengths.

To do so would allow the left to set aside a post-apartheid national culture that is so thoroughly exhausted. It would allow it to see those struggles against police violence elsewhere are not just similar struggles. It is, in fact, the same struggle—from Marikana to Minneapolis, from Minneapolis to Mbabane.

Further Reading