Book review: Good cop bad cop: confessions of a reluctant policeman, by Andrew Brown.
In this book, Andrew Brown recounts his experience on a sweltering Friday in November 2015. He is on duty as a police reservist, nowhere near his home in the well-to-do Cape Town suburb of Mowbray and his paid job as a lawyer.
Instead he is about an hour’s drive down the Cape peninsula, just outside the poor and overcrowded township of Masiphumelele near Fish Hoek. Here, people’s frustration with crime and chronic state neglect has boiled over into vigilantism and increasingly violent clashes with the police. And so the police top brass have gathered to present the community with a new mobile “satellite” police station. It is intended as an interim measure until proposals for a fully-fledged police station can grind their way through the bureaucracy.
As he directs the enormous cars of the VIPs and VVIPs to their appropriate parking spots outside the ceremony, Brown wonders to what extent this modest new offering will succeed in altering the character of the police’s presence and reception in the community.
Policing as pantomime
The day wears on and the police band and speeches are received and appropriately applauded by scores of police officers, politicians and representatives of NGOs. But, Brown notices, barely a handful of Masiphumelele residents. It dawns on him that he is playing a part not in a sincere attempt to reach out to the people who actually live and struggle here, but in a political pantomime.
As the red fabric drifted to the ground, a sergeant walked past me. ‘There we go,’ he said. ‘Masi is saved.’ Yes, cut the ribbon, eat the sandwiches, hold your flabby fist in the air. Masi is saved. Amandla.
A marshal came round with a large box containing food for the ordinary troops. Each person got some white bread with margarine and an apple. … And once that was over, they all left. Not just the deputy minister, not just the politicians, not just the police band, and not just the generals. Every last person got into their car or their bus or their taxi, and left. Within twenty minutes, there was not a braided insignia to be seen within a twenty-kilometre radius. And not one of them had actually set foot in Masiphumelele township. Maybe the smell would have disagreed with the deputy minister’s lunch.
This tone of bitter disillusionment dominates Good cop bad cop. It is a chilling contrast to Brown’s previous work of non-fiction, Street blues: the experiences of a reluctant policeman. Both books combine self-deprecating anecdotes with reflection on the unique strangeness of the work of policing a post-apartheid South African city.
Street blues did so with pathos and an endearing sense of wonder that he, an anti-apartheid activist, had come to work with his former opponents and found them to be, “first and foremost, ordinary people, with all the foibles, shortcomings and quirks of anyone else”. It described, frankly and with humour, his ambivalence about shouldering the burden of maintaining an ordered society and dealing with the full messiness of “human beings and their unfathomable perversity”.
A cynical change
In the eight years since that publication, there has clearly been a shift in Brown’s conception of the police and its role in the South African social landscape. The Marikana massacre is clearly partly responsible. So is the student protest movement. But the shift is stark.
Good cop bad cop makes no claim to subtlety or conceptual novelty. Its title is not, after all, Ambiguous or Cryptic cop. What another writer, Jonny Steinberg does so well (in, for example, Thin blue: the unwritten rules of policing South Africa, released the same year as Street blues) is to use the humble narrative of the cop on the street to reveal complex and genuinely illuminating broader theoretical landscapes. Brown’s is a much less ambitious goal. As he freely admits, this book is a labour borne not of any particular analytical insight, but primarily of personal catharsis.
But Good cop bad cop reads less as a quirky, thoughtful memoir than as chaotic confessional and desperate entreaty. Ambivalence has deteriorated into turmoil at finding himself in the role of trying to hold the lid on the “pressure cooker … of government’s non-delivery”. From his own candid observation, he makes a solid and depressing case for the unsustainability of the police’s current position as clumsy, armed mediators between the frustrations of the people and the inadequacies of the state.
Unfortunately, this material of heavy political lecture combines uncomfortably with the book’s irreverent, personal style. A frequent irritant in Brown’s work is his treatment of women.
Street blues featured an aggressively sexualised description of the enticing eyes and curve of breast of a 19-year-old girl bleeding to death on a pavement. Good cop bad cop offers some obviously grudging apologetics for dwelling on the shapeliness of a rape victim’s legs. And one is left to wonder if there are any youngish woman in Cape Town who aren’t flirting with him in circumstances whose implausibility is matched only by the mystery of their anatomical technique.
Given his interest in improving relations between police and those they are tasked with serving, it might have occurred to him that this unpleasant insight into a police officer’s mind might have a lingering effect on readers who are at risk of needing to call on those services. The “sexing up” that may be acceptable in fiction or light-hearted memoir makes the skin crawl in the context of serious political appeal.
Still, that appeal is persuasive. The cruel contrasts that define South African politics and society create an impossible task for its police. As Brown demonstrates from his personal experience and in his own, unvarnished way, they are “[d]ogs on a tautening leash”. And more broadly:
There is a word for a system that relies on its security forces to constrain its citizens in the face of its failure to implement basic human rights. And it’s not ‘democracy’.