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EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Police officers’ stories shed light on enduring legacy of race in South Africa

Many South African police officers might be considered “accidental officers”. This proposition is based on data I gathered during eight months of ethnographic fieldwork with police, exploring the stories they told about themselves and the world, and how these shaped their work. The research has just been published in a new book.

Key themes in many South African police officers’ life narratives included being born into poverty, working hard at home and school to beat the odds and pass high school (matric), only to realise that their dream careers remained out of reach.

For some this realisation came when they entered tertiary institutions and found that their secondary schooling had not equipped them for the rigours of university. For others, the money put aside for their studies ran out before they could complete their degrees, so they were forced to abandon them, dashing their career ideals. So they had turned to the South African Police Service (SAPS) and became one of the less than 2% of applicants fortunate to be accepted into the organisation.

While many officers grew to appreciate the job and the organisation, they wanted more for their children – careers requiring degrees – and so they worked to provide them.


At some point in my first weeks of fieldwork with police, a usually sprightly warrant officer and I had an impassioned debate about the death penalty. He told me he believed in an eye for an eye and that rapists should be executed. When I suggested that capital punishment in democracies did not reduce crime, he retorted with anger:

Andrew, you don’t know anything because you grew up in the nice areas with the white people. You had role models all around you, Springboks walking past you in the street, Raymond Ackerman as your neighbour.

The Springboks are South Africa’s national rugby team. Raymond Ackerman is one of the country’s wealthiest business people.

In South Africa, the warrant officer – a coloured man - “a person of mixed European ("white”) and African (“black”) or Asian ancestry" as officially defined by the apartheid government- didn’t need to know the details of my life to make such a statement. He could see it in my skin and hear it in my language and accent. As for his upbringing, he continued:

We growing up on the Cape Flats, Gugulethu, Mitchells Plain, we only had the gangsters. Our role models were the gangsters. You’re never going to change it. It will be the same a hundred years from now, it will always be the same for blacks and coloureds. It’s a thug’s life.

The outburst was rare. This officer, with whom I spent many days, usually extolled the promise of the “new” South Africa. The stories he told of himself were of escaping the “thug’s life”, getting out, getting into the SAPS and building something better for himself and his family. But even his optimism was rattled at times.

Of course, he had a point. In South Africa, apartheid’s race labels still predict life outcomes. White citizens are likely to be better educated, earn more money and live longer than others.

My research and book are the product of such facts. Knowledge is not neutral. The concepts and texts which I referred to in my research, were predominantly produced by white men in wealthy countries, about police organisations in developed societies.

Similarly, where I drew on the work of South African academics, they, like me, were usually white. And yet, most of the subjects of my book are black. Some may think such attention unnecessary. I don’t agree.

My book is, and can only be, a product of who I am, of whiteness in the post-colony. I take no pleasure in South Africa’s inequalities, but acknowledge that in many ways, all the pleasures of my life are its products. I wanted to be a police officer when I finished high school, but was dissuaded from it by the adults in my life who, like the police I write about in my book, thought it better that a young person be ‘educated’ than join the SAPS. While the result of privilege rather than hardship, my role as author of this book is also an unplanned product of South Africa’s inequality, long-shaped, in part, by police whose dreams have been deferred. Between these accidental occupations, the academic’s and the officer’s, justice is elusive and crime festers. No police organisation can correct that alone.

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