Police shaped by same forces that shape thugs

Close up of the SAPS badge on an officer's uniform.
Close up of the SAPS badge on an officer's uniform.

Police are central to modern states and societies, including South Africa. But, contrary to popular belief, the standard model of policing - random patrol, rapid response and follow-up investigation - has limited impact on general crime.

Instead, crime and violence are shaped by myriad factors including in utero stress, childhood loss of a caregiver, neglect and malnutrition, untreated mental health and cognitive disorders, stark income and opportunity inequality and related constructs of and damage to masculinities, and early exposure to violence, including at home and school. About much of this, police alone can do little.

Rather, many SA police officers are the products of the same forces that shape the "criminals" against whom they are pitted.

In 2012/13 I spent eight months shadowing SAPS officers as they went about their work at four stations - two in Cape Town (one poor township, one affluent city) and two in the Eastern Cape (one rural town, one rural village, both poor).

Aware of the limits of policing, I wanted to explore who officers thought they were - the stories they told themselves about themselves - and how these shaped their work. My findings have just been published in the book Police Work and Identity.

Accidental officers

Born and raised in poverty, most officers I met found themselves in the SAPS after original aspirations had slipped beyond reach. Some told stories of having disliked or been in conflict with the SAPS before signing up.

Yet, once inside, given a gun and uniform and asked to do the dirty work of a fragile and anxious democracy, they found themselves rewriting their self-narratives. They told themselves the SAPS was not ideal, but it was not bad either. It offered them secure employment.

And so, for most officers a job in the SAPS is primarily just that, a job.

Through official reports and statements, and carefully choreographed public performances, the SAPS and its officers present a strategically crafted façade behind which they cocoon themselves and seek to build their lives on the precarious socioeconomic terrain of contemporary South Africa.


While officers aspired to lives characterised by middle class materialism, few had the money to do so. Instead, they deferred their dreams to their children, investing in their education, while sharing what little remained with networks of precarious kin.

Some officers invested in more than their immediate relatives. They volunteered their time and money to support youth in their communities who they believed to be at risk.

Like the skollies (thugs) they hunted at work, the teens reminded officers of themselves.

By investing in them, officers hoped to deflect the teens from the violence of the criminal justice system.

In a sense, they offered them carrots so that they might avoid becoming the objects of the violence through which some officers asserted their right to manhood and respect on the job.

Raised on the periphery

Like so many South Africans, they are born and raised on the periphery, chasing a vision of a more prosperous future.

At times, proud, at times, shamed by the work they are required to do, they are nourished by the knowledge that while they may not be able to make SA safe, they can provide themselves and those they care for, with a better life than the one they were born into.

- theconversation.com