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Journal of Asian and African Studies
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DOI: 10.1177/0021909614541086
published online 15 July 2014 Journal of Asian and African Studies
Christopher McMichael
Police wars and state repression in South Africa

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Journal of Asian and African Studies
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DOI: 10.1177/0021909614541086
Police wars and state repression
in South Africa
Christopher McMichael
School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
This article presents an analysis of police violence in contemporary South Africa and it is argued that this
violence is aimed at upholding an unequal social order. Recent years have seen an alarming rise in the
number of deaths and assaults at the hands of the police. Much academic, media and civil society commentary
has blamed this on an apparent program of police remilitarization. Despite its critical tone much of this
commentary upholds that the police should be an apolitical force of good in society, but has been led astray
by bad policy. In contrast, more radical voices have suggested that the police are a brutal mechanism of
state violence, targeted primarily against the black poor. This article will build on this growing critique by
discussing recent theory on the links between police institutions, war and capitalist society. It will be argued
that state violence and control, of which police brutality is a key force, are not aberrations but in fact are
central to the upholding of the post-apartheid liberal order.
Police, war, protest, repression, South Africa
Dude what happened to you, your face is all swelled up and bruised?
I was out with friends last night at the bar and suddenly the police arrived and started assaulting everyone.
Without reason they fired shots and ordered everyone to lie down. Police in full uniform I tell you.
In early 2014 the above advertisement was broadcast on South African radio calling for victims of
brutality and violence at the hands of the national South African Police Service (SAPS) and the
metropolitan police of various cities, to report their stories to the Independent Police Investigative
Directorate (IPID). The IPID, bearing the official slogan Policing the police for a safer South
Africa is responsible for investigating police misconduct. This meant that this anti-police violence
campaign was paid for by the Department of Police itself. Such a campaign is timely because the
IPID recorded a 213% increase in reports of murder, assault and rape by officers in the 2012/2013
Corresponding author:
Christopher McMichael, Wits, NRF: SARChI Offices, John Moffat Building, Johannesburg, 2050, South Africa.
541086JAS0010.1177/0021909614541086Journal of Asian and African StudiesMcMichael
Original Article
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2 Journal of Asian and African Studies
financial year of reports (Sacks, 2013). SAPS violence made international news in 2012 with the
Marikana massacre, in which police tactical units killed 34 striking miners with live ammunition.
Twenty years after South Africas first multi-racial elections, this surge in state violence appears to
bear disturbing continuities with the countrys colonial and Apartheid past, in which white suprem-
acy was maintained through the barrel of the police gun. Most strikingly, police violence often
occurs in the form of public order operations at the countrys many local political protests. This
indicates a link to a newer set of social antagonisms indeed, it has been argued that the frequency
and militancy of protest can be reasonably be considered an on-going rebellion of the poor, in a
country characterized by vast inequality, massive unemployment and an underfunded public sector
(Alexander, 2010: 37).
The intensity of the cycle of protest and repression is staggering and a brief survey of news
reports in the early months of 2014 alone underlines this. In a period of just three months the prov-
ince of Gauteng, the economic hub of the country, recorded 569 protests, which included running
battles between residents and police officers (Eliseev, 2014) and the torching of a police station in
Zitobheni after residents had been without water and electricity for three weeks (Eyewitness News,
2014). A week earlier in Limpopo province there were clashes in which two protesters were killed
while another SAPS station and 19 vehicles were burnt (Maila, 2014). Meanwhile protests over
water in Motholung saw four people dead at the hands of the SAPS, with officers using banned
shotgun shells against the crowd (Davies, 2014).
The most commonly cited explanation for the rise in police violence is that the SAPS have been
remilitarized. This refers both to the formal reintroduction of military ranks into the service in
early 2010 and to a supposed reconceptualization of the police as a paramilitary force.
Remilitarization has been widely condemned as being a regressive move. For instance, in the gov-
ernments National Planning Commission report (2011: 387) it is argued that:
The decision to demilitarize the police force, moving away from its history of brutality, was a goal of
transformation after 1994. The remilitarization of the police in recent years has not garnered greater
community respect for police officers, nor has it secured higher conviction rates. Certainly, a paramilitary
police force does not augur well for a modern democracy and a capable developmental state. The
Commission believes that the police should be demilitarized and that the culture of the police should be
reviewed to instil the best possible discipline and ethos associated with a professional police service.
In a similar vein, opposition parties to the ruling ANC claim that the police are supposed to be the
good guys but have become increasingly brutal due to remilitarization (Kohler Barnard, 2013).
Even voices from within the security forces, such as those of former intelligence Minister Ronnie
Kasrils and the Police and Prison Union POPCRU, have condemned this remilitarization.
Remilitarization or the war against the poor?
Researchers have extensively detailed intensified police violence in the last few years. David
Bruce (2013) argues that a conceptual shift occurred since the 2009 ANC election manifesto was
published, which called for a renewed peoples war against violent criminals and more aggressive
use of force, with high-ranking government officials publicly urging for officers to shoot to kill
criminals. More generally the rhetoric of shoot to kill has been used within a context of intensi-
fied state repression, especially evident in confrontational protest policing such as the use of rubber
bullets and live ammunition and state harassment of social movements (Duncan, 2012).
For mainstream criminologists remilitarization is indicative of an interventionist, aggressive
form of public policing in which the service becomes a force which is apparently legitimated by
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McMichael 3
popular calls for a more punitive criminal justice system (Marks and Wood, 2010). It is argued that
this paramilitary approach has become evident in the response to protest, in which a lack of train-
ing in democratic policing results in the adoption of strong-arm tactics (Tait and Marks, 2011:
20). For Steinberg (2011: 357), making paramilitary policing in everyday life a matter of routine
reveals how the SAPS has failed to break with its historical legacy of aggression:
police gathering in large formations to sweep the streets of young men; heavily armed police invading
recreational establishments at which black men gather; groups of police picking individuals off the streets
and throwing them against a wall.
Despite differences in emphasis, criminological literature concurs that remilitarization and para-
military models are not commensurate with the creation of a police service conducive to a demo-
cratic South Africa. However, despite their criticisms, these accounts accept the fundamental
legitimacy of the police as the main institution for ensuring security and suggest that it has been
led astray by bad policy. For instance, Steinberg (2011: 359) concludes his account by arguing for
policy focused on creating a business-like and professional police service appropriate for a dem-
ocratic political community. Like criminologists internationally, commentators have treated mili-
tarization as a concept that invades and corrupts the fundamentally noble police profession
(Wall, 2013: 40). This is treated as primarily a matter of semantics because war talk distorts the
role of the police. For example, Johan Burger (Mbanjwa, 2013) claims that the militarization of
the language and the tone of police management must change to end police brutality while Marks
and Wood (2010: 311) refer to the war metaphor which is further propagated through a set of
changes to the organization and operations of police. Underlying this is the assumption that the
police should be a fundamentally apolitical body in society which protects property and the public
impartially and within bounds set by the law, and that better training and technical support can
reduce police violence
In contrast, more critical voices have used the concept of remilitarization to challenge the idea
that the police can ever be neutral public servants due to their central role in enforcing order in a
highly unequal society. Police killings have been discussed as the physical edge of a state and elite-
lead war on the poor which includes the dehumanizing and brutal living conditions that many
black people still endure in cities, townships and informal settlements (Hattingh, 2009). Police
repression has been escalated due to popular mobilization which attempts to change these condi-
tions as Ayanda Kota (2012) puts it:
When the elites power is threatened they will respond with more and more violence. War has been
declared on the poor and on anyone organising outside of the control of the ANC.
Taking this wider social reality of domination and exclusion into accounts of the SAPS role in
society challenges the idea that the police are public servants who provide key security services for
all. Jared Sacks (2014) has argued that the SAPS and supporting institutions, fundamentally lack
legitimacy due not only to institutional corruption (such as collusion with crime syndicates) and
regular brutality but also to their continual enforcement of dominant class interests, particularly
evident in the violent clampdowns on working class protests and strikes. Jim Irvin, general secre-
tary of Numsa, the largest trade union in the country, echoed this sentiment:
The police are not our friends, they represent something called the state. There is a minister of police
who always speaks after our people have been killed When people are dead, commissions are appointed
(Munusamy 2014).
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4 Journal of Asian and African Studies
But while police violence marks out enduring lines of force with the colonial and apartheid
past, it should be taken into account that the SAPS defend newer political and business interests
established since 1994 alongside older structures of white power and capital (Pithouse, 2013).
Indeed, several recent articles have attempted to capture something of this duality in which esca-
lated state violence occurs against the backdrop of a democratically elected government, constitu-
tionally-guaranteed civil rights and the emergence of a new black middle class. For Sipho
Hlongwane (2014) South Africa can be considered a brutal police state in which terror is applied
selectively: Far from the quiet suburbs, the supposed protectors and servants of the people are
waging a low-key war against political dissent.
Similarly, Songenzo Zibi (2014) writes:
On the day a protester fell from a moving police vehicle and died in Mothutlung I took a walk through the
Rosebank shopping area. Many South Africans were conducting their business over sumptuous food and
drinks, seemingly oblivious to the blood and gore being spilled not too far away.
Indeed, it has been suggested that recent years have seen the emergence of a middle class nar-
rative which regards protests by the poor for basic rights as the delinquency of a lazy and
dangerous underclass, thus rationalizing police killings as forthe security of the country
(Schutte, 2014).
This highlights two distinct conceptions of police violence within the South African debate. In
the literature on criminology and security studies, police violence is presented as the result of
aggressive policy, and the intrusion of political meddling into what is supposed to function as an
apolitical public service. In contrast, a critique has emerged (which we may call the war on the
poor thesis) which sees the police at the centre of a wider social conflict: rather than being neutral
managers of the law, the police are depicted as the primary enforcers of state repression.
This article aims to develop this latter thesis and will argue that the war on the poor theme
alluded to in the more critical media and academic coverage of police violence offers a persuasive
account of the structural role of the police in South African society. There is a large body of litera-
ture which details the institutional and subjective experience of the SAPS officers with a particular
focus on how the police investigate interpersonal crimes (see, for instance, Hornberger, 2011). In
contrast this article will look at the more general peace-keeping rather than crime-fighting man-
date of the police, and in particular the dynamic between social protest/conflict and state repres-
sion. Certainly, leftist thought has long held that police institutions throughout the world defend
dominant interests in society, so the argument that the South African service is pursuing a war
against large sections of the population may hardly seem like a revelation. So rather than proposing
to offer a radical new account of the police, this article will argue that police violence and coercion
need to be understood in relation to state rule, rather than through the narrow frame of police and
security studies. Instead of the technocratic question of how policing can improved we really
should be asking why it is the South African state has increasingly come to rely on the coercive
power of its repressive machinery to rule.
Critical theory from other parts of the world has elaborated on the connections between war,
policing and capitalist order and offers useful insights for the South African context. While the
concept of police militarization has recently become common in academia and media dis-
course, it often downplays the distinct role of the police in state violence, regardless of the appar-
ent influence of military tactics and techniques (Seri, 2012: 118). Indeed, the police historically
have been far more capable of performing many forms of internal oppression than the military
the dictatorships of the last century learned from the expertise of their police forces when it
came to terrorizing their populations (Seri, 2012: 118). Police repression does not necessarily
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McMichael 5
entail direct violence but rather a package of efforts intended to preserve state power, neutralize
resistance and to maintain social inequality (Williams, 2013: 18). In liberal democracies repres-
sion is therefore marked by a combination of tactics in which the iron fist of coercion is wrapped
with a velvet glove of human rights rhetoric, public relations and the co-option/subversion of
antagonistic groups.
As discussed in the previous section, research on police militarization has generally treated
war as a metaphor which intrudes on the supposedly civilian business of policing. But, as Mark
Neocleous proposes (2014), this argument rests on a narrow and selective conception of war as
fundamentally about conflicts between the standing armies of nation-states. This conception rele-
gates the various colonial wars and campaigns of state persecution, through which millions have
been slaughtered and the resources of whole continents appropriated to the status of small wars
(Neocleous, 2014: 6). But such wars have been central to the modern history of capitalist domina-
tion, and this relegation is connected to the systematic neglect of the most fundamental and vio-
lent conflict in human history: the class war (Neocleous, 2014: 6). For Neocleous (2014: 7) this is
an ideological omission: because liberalism holds that while violence may be central to other
political forms (fascism, communism, totalitarianism, etc) the capitalist order is fundamentally
peaceful war is something external and exceptional. In practise, however, the history of market
order is one of state coercion and violence: from slavery and imperialism to the contemporary use
of the war on terror to silence dissent and build up extensive new forms of global surveillance.
Rather than existing in separate realms the police and military belong on the same continuum of
seeking out enemies and sources of disorder, albeit in different locales and at very different scales,
diffracting into a series of micro-operations and regulatory practices to ensure that nebulous target
security in such a way that makes war and police resemble one another (Neocleous 2011: 156).
In liberalism these constant operations are presented and normalized as issues of law and order
and security rather than as what they really are: war. Building on Marxs reference to the civil
war of capital and Engels to the social war, Neocleous (2014: 6) suggests that these were not just
rhetorical flourishes but refer to the undeclared but very real campaigns of organized and system-
atic state violence, military-police terroralbeit draped in law and delivered with good man-
ners (Neocleous, 2011: 155).
From an anarchist perspective, social war is conflict in all hierarchical relations; although
class is a central struggle coercion and control is central to all forms of domination (Munger, 2013:
124, 133). The key point here is that violence and intimidation are not intended only to destroy
resistance and control the dangerous classes but also to maintain the normality of the system. As
Trochhi (2011: 306) suggests the victory of the social war is complete only when the citizen feels
deep metaphysical anguish at witnessing the destruction of commodities and other violations of
private property and fails to wince at the death of other human beings. State strategies for pres-
ervation of order evolve and can become more subtle for example, while an uprising like the
Paris Commune in 1871 was crushed by massacre, by a century later DeGaulle defeated the civil
war of May 1968 in France by ordering the police to not fire a shot, and then ordering an election
instead (Trochhi 2011: 303). Such a conflict links different parts of the state apparatus, and indeed
creates transnational links between different governments. For instance, Raul Zibechi (2012: 189,
193) argues that the fear Latin American elites feel about the threat to dominance emerging from
the poor urban peripheries resonates with the US militarys efforts to develop warfare strategies
for the favelas and slums of the global South.
Although the security forces play a key role in this social conflict, their actions occur in tandem
with other, less overtly repressive parts of the state apparatus. Neocleous (2008: 76) uses a quote
from the David Peaces novel about the UK miners strike, GB84, which captures this continuum
of repression/legitimacy-building:
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6 Journal of Asian and African Studies
least Keiths back. Back with his new teeth Police state took them out, he laughs. Welfare state put them
back in.(Peace, 2004)
State and political security (kicking in the teeth of strikers) is combined with social security,
as part of a broader vision of economic security and social order (Neocleous 2008: 95). To return
to the IPID quote at the beginning we can paraphrase Peaces quote for the South African context:
the police will beat or shoot you in the name of safety, and then a subsidiary organization will
promise to investigate in the name of a safer South Africa.
Policing as internal war
It seems incontestable that the police in South Africa were a product of a long civil war which
ensured the historical privilege and domination for whites and the militarization of space for
blacks (Mbembe 2008: 44, 46). Prior to the foundation of the national South African Police in
1913, the European-settler colonies which became South Africa were patrolled by a variety of
policing bodies. Ranging from Boer commandos to mounted units established by the British these
institutions were, as noted by the historian Michael Brogden (1989: 3), primarily military in origin,
acting to ensure white dominance against the indigenous population and non-white migrant
Even by colonial standards this entailed exceptional degrees of violence and coercion. By the
time of the emergence of the centralized South African Police in 1913 in no other British domin-
ionwas policing so nakedly an agency of white supremacy (Brogden, 1989). But while violence
was a constant throughout the 20th century, the policing tactics of the state evolved and adapted,
particularly in response to resistance from below. Along with the racial oppression of African,
Indian and Coloured (mixed race) labour in the bourgeoning cities and towns, state forces also
entrenched class domination over the white work force with a series of ferocious police and mili-
tary clampdowns on strikers in the early decades of the last century. By the waning days of
Apartheid in the 1980s, the white government adopted a variety of counter-insurgency strategies to
quell mass insurrection, ranging on a spectrum from clandestine death squads to the token upgrad-
ing of townships.
The police were at the centre of a much wider apparatus of legal and spatial controls, such as
prison camp-like worker compounds, townships and fenced locations. Along with brute force,
the police were also agents of wider efforts to install a moral order patterned after the vision of
the ruling class. For instance, the police archives of Johannesburg in the 1910s include officers
bemoaning loafing and passless natives who were avoiding incorporation into the labour pool,
unrest by white miners and the presence of potentially subversive immigrants from Europe
(Union Government 1920: 17). As well as providing evidence of enforcing segregation, such
anecdotes highlight the major role of the police in the everyday consolidation of capitalism in
South Africa.
As colonial segregation was codified into official Apartheid, the police become ever more brutal
and powerful. Under the forty-year rule of the National Party the police presided over a dual sys-
tem: while the white minority experienced civilian policing, the primary goal of policing over the
majority black population was to prevent political resistance, which the state attempted to achieve
through routine torture, murder and terror. The police were also central to the daily administration
of Apartheid through the enforcement of pass laws and curfews. An indication of how deeply the
police force penetrated into the daily lives of black people can be found in the text of the 1955
Freedom Charter which called for a non-racial democratic society in which the privacy of the
house from police raids shall be protected by law.
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McMichael 7
The war on crime
After the negotiated end of Apartheid and the victory of the ANC in the historic 1994 elections,
official policy promised a clean break with this legacy of internal warfare and to transform the
police into an institution that would act in accordance with democratic and human rights princi-
ples symbolically seen in the name change from the South African Police to the South African
Police Service. According to many accounts these laudable goals crashed on the rocks of reality
due to high rates of violent crime, including both property crimes such as vehicle highjacking and
housebreaking and epidemic interpersonal violence particularly murder and male sexual violence
against women and children. Indeed both the intensity and scope of violent crime, and the public
fears it generates, have lead commentators to portray South Africa as a country at war with itself
(Altbeker, 2007). It has been generally maintained in criminological studies that the reliance on
aggressive policing stems from the perceived inability of the SAPS to reduce crime rates, as the
police use highly visible of displays of force to win legitimacy in the public sphere (Steinberg,
2011: 357).
Violent crime also became a major political issues in the ANC discourse between the 1994 and
1999 national elections, shifting from a focus on changing the social causes of violence to a more
punitive language of security and war on crime: tough laws, special police units and calling in
the military to patrol the townships (Jensen, 2005: 563). At the policy level this was evident in the
scrapping of the National Crime Prevention Strategy, which was publically circulated and intended
to work in conjunction with a variety of social programs, in favour of the 2000 National Crime
Combating Strategy which was drafted exclusively by the SAPS and has never been made publi-
cally available (du Plessis and Louw, 2005: 430-431). While promoting their ability to protect law
abiding citizens, the state also launched attacks on undocumented migrants, from blitz raids to
officers setting attack dogs on illegals (Neocosmos, 2006: 101). These attacks on the foreign
poor now appear as a harbinger of the type of policing which has become increasingly
Since the late 1990s, police officials have persistently employed such bellicose rhetoric, which
became particularly heated under former Commissioner, later Brigadier General Bheki Cele (2009
until his suspension in 2011 for alleged corruption) whose strident statements about police need-
ing to hunt criminals to their dooms and his self-styled tough guy image earned him a regular spot
in the South African press his enthusiasm for media coverage extending to selling media rights
to his wedding photos to local tabloids. Celes tenure saw the formal reintroduction of military
ranks into the service and high profile cases of state repression, such as the televised killing of
Andries Tatane by riot police in 2011. At the operational level the SAPS began to utilize brutal
new methods for protest, with an upsurge of deaths since 2011 indicating the increased usage of
rubber bullets fired at close range, live ammunition and the alleged targeting of protest leaders
(Bruce 2012a) . Cele also put a focus on the creation of specialized units trained to use maximum
force against terrorists and other menaces, but in practise these units are increasingly deployed
in crowd control situations, with tactics, weaponry and operational experience more suited to
confrontations with armed gangs than with crowds (Bruce, 2012b).
However, other police officials were equivocal about what remilitarization actually entailed
according to the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa rank changes:
should not be misinterpreted as merely the militarization of the police but as part of our new approach of
being fierce towards criminals, while lenient to citizens safety and maintaining good discipline within the
Force. For us to achieve these and other objectives there are certain steps we have undertaken to ensure we
win this war, which by the way has been waged by senseless criminals. This is a peoples war against
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8 Journal of Asian and African Studies
criminals. For any Force to discharge its tasks effectively there needs to be a commander because wars are
led by commanders (SAPS, 2010).
This implies that the SAPS are already, or even always engaged in a war, with the ranks merely
changing to formalize this conflict. Indeed the depiction of militarization corrupting a more
benign police underplays the institutional continuity between the present service and the past. This
point is forcefully made by police Major General Jeremy Vearey:
Firstly let me just demythologise for you. The police never demilitarized and remilitarized through the
sloganeering of someone. Never. Never. The structure in terms of the military tradition of instruction was
always there. A militaristic way of doing tactical planning, was always there. Do you understand the
military way of planning? You firstly see those on the other side as an adversary. Thats the first point. If
Im planning an operation .then Im dealing with an adversary. If I have an adversary they better be
clearly identified. (Vearey, 2013: 16)
The operations of the war on crime have occurred in tandem with broader political and eco-
nomic shifts over the last two decades. The political calls for a more punitive criminal justice
system, with the SAPS as the shock troops, fitted in with the neo-liberal policies pursued by the
ANC-led government in the 1990s, in which the state promoted its ability to create an enabling
environment for business by ensuring safety and security (Dieltiens, 2011: 48). In lieu of a
wider redistribution of wealth and opportunities, this means that the mobilization of police has
tended to reproduce past inequalities and overwhelmingly targets the black poor (Dieltens, 2011).
However, this does not necessarily suggest a division between punitive policing and apparently
more developmental social policy:
The war against the [criminal subject may].. complement the other war the South African government
is waging: the war against poverty. The government can be presumed to be fighting poverty at least as
earnestly as it fights crime in bringing about social development. Both are internal conflicts or civil wars,
waged against a categorical enemy until no determinate end because neither belligerent can surrender nor
a peace treaty be signed. Yet, the two wars are simultaneously antitheses, because the war against crime is
an implicit war on the poor. The possibility of development yielding security could be made no more
remote (Dieltiens 2011: 54).
Policing the social order
Unlike policing in the past, which was clearly mobilized to protect the power of the white minority,
the last two decades have seen the democratic government pursue a war on crime in the name of
protecting the people from danger. In both political and media discourse this is presented as a
police war in which officers engage in low-intensity battles. against the unruly and criminal
suspects. unlike the war enemy described by Clausewitz or Carl Schmitt the police enemy is
neither a peer nor and equal but just a nuisance to be neutralized or destroyed (Seri, 2012: 105).
The government depiction of policing as a constant, ferocious clash between the forces of law and
disorder is often motivated by reference to crimes such as crash-in-transit heists which, while dra-
matic, account for a fraction of recorded crime (Bruce, 2013). Indeed much of what the police do
consists of general public order work and what the SAPS code of conduct calls the promotion of
a a safe and secure environment for all people in South Africa. However the seemingly neutral,
consensual language of security may serve a political role in offering an apparent solution to the
puzzle of how to make an unequal and fragmented societygovernable without calling such
fragmentation and inequality into question (Seri, 2012). Indeed, as I will argue in the following
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McMichael 9
section the violence and coercion which is such a regular feature of polices operations does not
occur in a vacuum but stems from their key role in protecting economic security (Neocleous
2008) and social hierarchy.
The idea of security which is relayed by the government, big business and the media is a highly
economistic one in which the creation of safe spaces is depicted as a necessary condition for eco-
nomic development and job creation. As part of their general order mandate, the SAPS and metro
forces are constantly deployed to regulate and remake space, and to remove groups and structures
which are considered a threat to economic viability. This often occurs as a product of by-law
enforcement, in which police raids are used to clean up crime and grime, such as in the 2013
Operation Clean Sweep in Johannesburg in which street traders, many of whom were licenced by
the metropolitan government, were suddenly and dramatically expelled from the inner city, in what
was described by the Constitutional Court as a degrading and wantonviolent eviction
(Zondo, 2014). This was depicted by the authorities as a strategy that formed part of a wider cam-
paign to control and remove so-called bad buildings, land invaders and shack dwellers from the
city (Van Rensburg, 2013). Throughout the country both informal trading and housing are gener-
ally regarded by the state as sites of criminality necessitating a punitive response from law enforce-
ment (Huchzermeyer, 2011). Post-apartheid informal settlements and the occupation of unused
land have been responded to with the creation of special police groups, such as the Western Cape
Anti-Land Invasion Unit, which is the biggest unit in law enforcement in Cape Town (City of
Cape Town, nd). The language of invasion indicates how the state turns issues of housing and
land into security problems necessitating a punitive response. This ranges from such shock tactics
as pre-dawn raids with armoured vehicles and rubber bullets (Patel, 2011: xiv) to the use of whips
and dragging people out of vehicles (Zack, 2013). These operations often included supporting
forces from the private security industry such as the Red Ants in Gauteng.
Housing and other struggles over spaces and resources have been central to post-Apartheid
protest by the poor, to which the police have responded with sustained violence. During the first
decade of democracy, the government adopted a generally hostile stance toward protests against
various aspects of market reform and municipal services. The state response included police crack-
downs against new social movements and the public portrayal of community organizations as
criminals (McKinley, 2013: 126). Since 2004 community protests have become much more mili-
tant and confrontational, often including tactics such as road blockades, burning tyres and in
destruction of municipal government property. Although protests are spurred on by a variety of
local factors, they are generally sparked by inadequate or overly expensive services, degrading
living conditions, government corruption and the hostility of elites to the poor (Alexander, 2010:
29). The prevalence of these factors indicates how local government has become the key arena of
social conflict, in which local councillors and other power brokers attempt to pacify the poor
through the provision and control of basic services (Hart, 2014). The police are thus enrolled in a
variety of localized struggles over power and resources, from repressing groups organizing outside
the state to involvement in faction fighting within the ANC itself. Despite these local factors, and
especially since 2011, the police reaction nationally has been overwhelming and often lethal force:
this includes the firing of rubber bullets and teargas directly into crowds (Bruce, 2012a). This is
often followed by police officers hunting down protesters through densely packed townships and
shack settlements and arresting and beating them. Bystanders have often being wounded or even
killed by the police firing off munitions. In many cases these operations are followed up by the
arrest of protesters identified as ringleaders by the state: in many cases these arrests for charges
of public violence have been thrown out of court due to lack of evidence (Hattingh, 2009). Such
clashes are generally relayed to the outside world by media reports based on SAPS official state-
ments, which portray their officers as being forced to respond to criminal, rampaging mobs.
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10 Journal of Asian and African Studies
Although concerned with increased violence, mainstream criminological approaches hold that it
is the product of poor training rather than an intrinsic characteristic of the police force. Because the
government has failed to equip its officers with the requisite skills and equipment to contain regular
protest actions, causing harried officers to have chosen to revert to self-defence and firearm use
(Bailey, 2014). From this perspective, the police are failing to act as mediators between the rights to
protest and protecting public order. However, this neglects the profound and intrinsic asymmetric
relationship between the police and protesters. The SAPS and supporting forces are deployed with
arsenals ranging from riot gear to helicopters, as well as ready access to media channels, ensuring
that their accounts of events are prioritized. Indeed, media reports often downplay the political con-
tent of protest through depicting it as little more than delinquent hooliganism captured in the
amazed tone of a newspaper headline from February 2014 Mob not mindless morons, says study
(Molatlhwa 2014). More crucially, the focus on training failures omits how violence against protest-
ers can be considered as part of a wider strategy of state repression. The police actions against pro-
tests by the black poor have been described as part of a project of terrorising the voice of ordinary
poor people back into the dark corners (Churchland Program, 2011: 10). This reign of terror con-
sists of a range of activities, both public and covert for instance, along with fatal police shootings,
the ongoing Marikana Land Occupation (named for the strike) in Durban has also seen the assassi-
nation of activists and hyperbolic media coverage of the shack dwellers as an armed horde (Pithouse,
2014). Police also use the threat of fatal violence as social control, telling demonstrators in Makause
that they would be met with another Marikana if they went ahead with a planned march (De Waal,
2012). In fact, the very frequency of protest has created business opportunities for the security
industry, with conferences bringing police officials together with weapons manufacturers eager to
display the latest crowd control munitions (DefenceWeb, 2011).
It is also important to consider how police violence protects the interests of Capital. The previ-
ous sections have noted how repressive force is used to defend the distribution of space and prop-
erty and the creation of a secure business environment. Along with this the police are also enrolled
to discipline labour and protect corporate interests. This has been most evident in the circum-
stances surrounding the Marikana massacre, which saw direct collaboration between the police and
the Lonmin company, which included the company providing the SAPS with operational assis-
tance such as surveillance footage. In the submission to the inquiry on the killings advocate Dali
Mpofu (2012) noted that the toxic collusion between the police and Lonmin or the state and capi-
tal was causative of the massacre, with the government and the mine working to crush a wildcat
strike that challenged the dominance of the ANC-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers. At the
time of the shootings the SAPS maintained that their units were acting in self-defence but evidence
has steadily emerged which indicates that the killings were a direct result of the police plan to break
the strike by force- the killing of four police officer and private security guards earlier in the strike
was used as the rationale for a massive police response, including the issuing of 4,000 rounds of
R5 semi-automatic rifle ammunition and the request for mortuary vans the morning before the
shooting (Nicolson and Marinovich, 2013). The killings by followed by an unofficial state of
emergency in the Marikana area including mass arrests, additional shootings, raids on the homes
of miners (Fogel, 2012) and the deployment of the army as backup for the police (SABC, 2012)
To return to Mpofus comment the significance of this occupation is that it indicates the coercive
force of the police as a key mechanism in the collaboration between the state and Capital. In the
case of Marikana, the police war (Neocleous, 2011, Seri, 2012) of raids and killings was intended
to defend business-as-usual through attacking threats to production and profit which emerged from
working class self-organization.
After the Marikana shootings, SAPS were again used to supress workplace insurgency in the
Western Cape wine lands. Police units and private security companies were deployed in response
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McMichael 11
to a series of strikes, road blockades and vineyard fires by farmworkers, with three protesters being
killed. A commentary on the strikes provides a useful summation on the linkage of police repres-
sion and the broader frame of socio-economic power:
As in Marikana, business and government are insisting on adherence to the law while the protesting
workers have adhered to the law for 18 years of democracy without getting much in exchange. The law,
apparently defined primarily as safety and security, as keeping the peace through law enforcement, is
increasingly being used as a political weapon to quell voices of dissent from below. It becomes more and
more difficult to not to see this stance by government, in collusion with the biggest unions and in particular
with organised business as a war on the working poor and on dissent (Blaser, 2012).
As this article has argued, the SAPS and supporting forces are key actors in the social conflict that
is the war on the poor. A large body of evidence indicates that state violence is systemic in
nature because the police both attack dissent and enforce socio-spatial order. While this draws on
operational tactics and techniques from the past, the aim of current police terror is not to uphold
white minority rule but to ensure that opposition to the inequalities of the post-apartheid order are
kept to a manageable level. In practice this has seen regular and increasingly violent police opera-
tions of shootings, raids, beatings and evictions which are then relayed to the media as the defence
of public safety. This violence occurs in tandem with the government and ruling class program of
projecting South Africa as a thriving capitalist democracy in which social antagonisms and pov-
erty are gradually disappearing. A concrete example of this convergence occurred in February
2014 when parts of Johannesburg were closed off for the filming of the Hollywood blockbuster
Avengers: Age of Ultron. Along with the JMPD (Johannesburg Metropolitan Police) directing
traffic around the set, the SAPS provided vehicles for use in the movie including an assembly-line
fresh Casspir armoured vehicle. A few months before, however, the JMPD and SAPS had been
scouring these same streets to remove informal traders, while Casspirs were present at the scene
of the Marikana killings. Such associations indicate how state public relations and the production
of entertainment spectacle coexist happily alongside police shootings and violent removals (see
also Fisher, 2009: 2).
A common refrain of academic criminology is that while crowd control methods should be
improved and made more democratic policing itself cannot fix the underlying problems that
result in public protest and demonstration ( Tait and Marks, 2011: 21). While this appears a reason-
able sentiment it also misses the point: the fact that ordinary citizens are engaged in increasingly
tense stand-offs with the agents of the state indicates that current social order is unable to fix these
underlying problems. In the face of these antagonisms the South African government is increas-
ingly using the police to pursue one of the key tactics of power everywhere: to put a wall of lead
between the ruled and the rulers (Paz, 2007:271). The intensification of police violence opens up
a much broader and more fundamental question: why is it that the state has not been able to build
a consensus around the post-apartheid order and has instead increased the reliance on blatant
repression? While an answer is not available in the parameters of this article, future research on the
security apparatus in South Africa needs urgently to focus on the question of the emerging forms
of coercion and control used to uphold the normal social order.
I would like to thank Tyler Wall, Mark Neocleous and Kayla Roux for their comments and help with editing
and the anoymous reviewer for their suggestions.
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12 Journal of Asian and African Studies
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
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Author biography
Christopher McMichael has a PhD in Politics and is currently a post-doctoral researcher at Wits University,
who studies urban warfare and social conflict.
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