Ziyanda Stuurman : The colonial origins and mandates of policing in South Africa, the private security market, and abolition (Part 1 of 2)

Ziyanda Stuurman shares her reflections on her debut book, Can We Be Safe: The Future of Policing in South Africa, broader insights on the inadequate delivery of safety and justice from the police and what the vision of abolition could be in South Africa. Ziyanda Stuurman is a political science and security studies graduate who is currently a Policy Manager based at the Abdul Latiff Jameel-Poverty Action Lab at the University of Cape Town. Ziyanda is a Fulbright and Chevening scholar whose Masters degree research on the militarisation of policing in Brazil and South Africa was published in the South African Journal of International Affairs in April 2020. Her research and writing on policing, justice, law and society was published in a book titled “Can We Be Safe? The future of policing in South Africa” in June 2021. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferreira


Read Part 1 of 2 of Kim M Reynolds’ interview with Ziyanda below.


Kim M Reynolds: How did you come to write this book? What work and experiences led you to this field, professionally and personally? And why is this something of urgency? 


Ziyanda Stuurman: Yeah, I mean, that’s always such an interesting question. I guess, you know, particularly in terms of what led me to this field and what sort of catalyzed my interest. But if you go sort of way back, my father was a social worker for a really long time and my mother was a social sciences teacher for a really long time. And they both came of age and grew up in, you know, probably the most sort of tumultuous time of apartheid, you know, in the 70s and 80s, and then went to the University of the Western Cape, which is a very sort of politically active and activist school. And in that sense, with their own life experiences and then growing up between Cape Town and George, they inculcated in me, I think, a very, very strong sort of sense of justice, you know, in its many forms, you know, whether it be social justice, racial justice, economic justice, etc, and particularly, again, from their own sort of very working class backgrounds and then being able to move into the middle class. There was always a really sort of root understanding of, yes, we have this idea in South Africa especially that we’ve reached equality, but, you know, is it substantive? Is it nuanced and complex? And, you know, and I mean, now we know the answer is no, but sort of growing up, you know, taking history classes and taking other classes and, you know, coming back and saying to them, “This is what I’ve learned and from this perspective.” And they would be like, “Mmm, okay, but we didn’t go to school in the suburbs, and so we see things this way.” So, yeah, they were really great parents in that sense. And that really kind of sparked my interest in history and politics, and that’s what I did at university. And I went to Stellenbosch [University] to do that, which is a whole another experience in and of itself. And that just sort of largely led me to questions around inequality and, you know, why South Africa’s inequality is so stubborn and, you know, the sort of obvious ends of it, because it was designed that way and it’s been no or not enough, at least of a real effort specifically by political elites to dismantle that. And that then kind of led me to these questions around policing, particularly as well. And I think it was in my first professional job in 2013 when I was sort of looking into the why and the how of the fact that at that point, about twelve thousand protests or public order unrest incidents were recorded by the police in that year. And that number has stayed stubbornly high since then. And I mean, the sort of answers around that have come from the fact that it was a sort of delayed after effects of the 2008 global financial crisis that hit South Africa differently and also hit South Africa later and also then very, very importantly, the Marikana massacre in August 2012. So all of those things coming together and that meaning something for South Africa and particularly, I think, the sort of failing service delivery. And that brought me back to the question again of policing when I was doing my master’s degree at Sussex University. And I just kind of wanted to dig into that and, you know, try and understand why policing looks the way that it does in South Africa. And I did a comparative study with Brazil, which is also one of the most unequal countries in the world and has a history of race, racism, slavery and particularly political violence. And yeah, honestly, ever since then, just being super interested in why we have a police institution that is the way it is and why we can’t shake off the colonial and apartheid sort of practices of that institution. 


Kim M Reynolds: It seems like a lot of your work has led up to the publishing of this book then.


Ziyanda Stuurman: Mm hmm. My first thesis was on the militarization of policing in South Africa and Brazil, and I ended up writing a thread that went viral on that in 2019 when [Cyril] Ramaphosa [current president of South Africa] essentially announced that the military would go into the Cape Flats. And I was just like, “This is a terrible idea,” and Twitter is just no place for nuance. But I wrote the thread and it went viral with lots of engagement. And then a friend of mine introduced me to an editor at The Mail & Guardian and that’s how I wrote my first op ed that sort of fleshed out the idea. And yeah, ever since then, I’ve been speaking to people and to other researchers in the policing space. Then eventually a commissioning editor from my [now] publishers reached out to me in June last year. They said, you know, look at all of the global conversations that, again, were catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder and the emergence of Black Lives Matter again. We have some conversations in South Africa on policing, but quite a few of them are also rooted and based in I think American context and circumstances and solutions. And, you know, our police service is just very, very different. And I think that that was the core sort of reason why the editor approached me. And I eventually agreed to writing the book because it’s just that there’s so much I think that South Africans don’t understand about that difference between institutions and how we’d eventually fix it or, you know, abolish it. 


Kim M Reynolds: I wanted to ask you, why is it important for you to ground the book in the colonial and the racist origins of the police? And also, what was the archival process like? It was really interesting to just read about what was happening in 1652 and in the 1800s, so what was the process like of trying to unearth all this history about the very clear colonial and racist origins of the police in South Africa? 


Ziyanda Stuurman: I mean, that was really interesting because I think the hard thing about it is that all of the archives that I would have tried to access in person, because of COVID, had been sort of shut down. So in that sense, I was relying a lot on other researchers’ work and the materials that they had either digitized or, you know, been able to put up as part of their own work. So I spent quite a bit of time reading a lot of Dr. Kelly Gillespie’s work. She’s great because she wrote about, in her 2008 doctoral thesis I believe, moralizing prison and whether or not, you know, any prison system in South Africa could be more moral, particularly after 1994. And because so many political leaders themselves had very personal experiences of prisons in a way that political elites in other countries don’t necessarily have, her sort of conclusion is that that dissipated a lot after 1994, especially because of high crime rates and there being this very populist sort of move to be like, yes, we do need to put everybody who’s a bad person and who’s a criminal behind bars because the average South African isn’t that, et cetera, et cetera. And no clear understanding of the really, really strong connection between poverty, inequality, dispossession and the criminal justice system or the vision that we have of it. So, you know, engaging a lot of her work, speaking to a lot of policing experts, especially on policing history. One of the most fascinating things in the whole process of researching, is that the police themselves in I think it was in 2011, commissioned a project with a historian to do like ‘a hundred years of the police service’, from Proclamation 18 in 1913 to about 2013. And that is just to me, the most fascinating choice that they could have made, because that’s, you know, those hundred years are bookended by the creation of the police in 1913, and the strikes on the gold mines in the Witwatersrand and then Marikana in 2012. So you have one hundred years of police doing the same thing over and over again. So I just found it so interesting to even do an analysis of what the police see themselves as. And you know, in that hundred years in this sort of project that they commissioned and then juxtaposing that to this idea that they’re supposed to be human rights oriented and community focused and almost really the lies they tell themselves in terms of being that within the everyday practice is completely different. So I had just found that really, really interesting to look at source materials and to understand why and how, and to also know who was studying the history of policing and where that came from and the conclusions that they even came to. 


Kim M Reynolds: Ahh okay. My next question is how does this conversation about policing extend to personal iterations of policing? It would be interesting to have your take on the KZN uprisings, you know, where you saw so much racial animosity express itself through feelings of unsafety, because so much feeling of unsafety is the presence of Blackness. You know, which is similar in the US where crime or feelings of unsafety are almost informally defined by the amount of Black people in an area, and this then presents several paradoxes of politicians, particularly Black politicians who have to finds means of justifying the existence and usefulness of an institution that is extremely harsh and anti-Black and simultaneously considered fundamental to society. 


Ziyanda Stuurman And I mean, it’s a really interesting one because I think it picks up on so many nuances. And you know, I like the similarities that you sort of draw between what at least I call sort of call establishment or centrist politicians who, exactly like you’re saying, have to toe the line in terms of understanding that race and racism is still very much alive in both countries [SA and USA]. But then, you know, having to constantly assuage particularly, I think, a lot of white feelings and saying things like, “I still love this country.” Like, I still believe in its potential, its identity, which is not to say that it isn’t true, but the fact that you always have to sort of sandwich any sort of critique of either country. And that’s always just so fascinating. 


What I think, particularly the sort of KZN situation brought to light is just this idea that there’s still this very endearing myth, really, that I think particularly Black people in South Africa are like waiting for a moment or waiting for a sign or a spark, and like they’re going to exact revenge on everyone who isn’t Black and will drive people off into the into the sea and, you know, do all sorts of unspeakable things. And I mean that deeply, deeply denies the humanity of Black people. To be honest, it’s just this idea that so many of us are just waiting, you know, waiting in the cut to really sort of, you know, be violent and in our ‘true’ nature. I can’t remember the name of the article, but I think I read it last week saying that so much of that unrest, particularly in ePhoenix and the one community of Phoenix where, you know, Black and Indian people live side by side was fueled by fake news and WhatsApp messages of people pretending to be Black or particularly Zulu and trying to raise fears. And that’s what drove people to these sort of vigilante groups that just did absolutely horrible things during those couple of days. And that really just absolutely cracks the facade of any sort of rainbow nation idea that papers over racism and racial resentment.


I think this field is always so interesting because there’s absolutely no way to look at policing and the idea of safety and safety in South Africa without looking at race and racism and really just the failure to deeply excavate all of those things from both our history and our present, but also to excavate those things from policing itself.


You know, to me, it was really interesting to see who was emboldened to go out and to create these roadblocks in their communities and who said, “Yes, you may enter now” and “No, you may not” very, very quickly and very easily… Even with this whole idea that, like, “Oh, the police told us to” or “We’re part of this community policing forum and so we felt that we had to step up.” Interestingly, those weren’t the same groups that were coming together to protect, you know, townships. It was mostly taxi associations. And even that had a purely economic sort of purpose in the sense that, you know, taxi drivers and taxi owners said if malls don’t exist, we don’t have people to take to and from malls, so that’s why we’re protecting them, which is a very, very different, I think, iteration of that version of safety and community safety to, you know, what happened in other suburbs and area and particularly in Phoenix. So again, it’s a replay of these like deep racial cleavages that aren’t going anywhere. And if we again try to Rainbow Nation our way out of even this, then, you know, we’re we’re sort of headed to a place where all of these systems, you know, are reinforced and reiterated. And similarly with policing. I’ve never, ever been a fan of the idea of, you know, we need to get rid of Bheki Cele [current Minister of Police], because that’s not the point. Them being in charge is only one tiny part of this greater issue that we have to deal with, which is a very, very deep and structural reform of the police. And in my mind, to get it to a point where we can really shrink it to its absolute smallest version so that it doesn’t play this outsized role in people’s imagination of safety.


And that’s another thing that this unrest highlighted. I just genuinely don’t think that having police officers out on the street or police vehicles out patrolling creates safety. It’s actually much broader and much more nuanced than that. And I just hope we can finally get to an understanding of that, that it doesn’t then motivate people to pour even more money into our police service because, for fuck’s sake, it’s like, where’s the money going right now? We spend 100 billion rand on policing. We should feel the safest people in the world. And we don’t!


Kim M Reynolds: I hear you. I mean there was very money available for COVID-19 relief grants, but there was 60 million rand available to deploy the police and military during the unrest.  


Ziyanda Stuurman: And I mean, look at what they’ve done with the money. It’s now been weeks and weeks of police raids to take back food, to literally take back food, to take back items of furniture or appliances or whatever, that even the shops in the warehouses themselves don’t want. They literally say like once something has been taken out of the packaging, they can’t resell it. It’s worthless, so it will be destroyed. I mean, if I could, I would have taken like a week off just so I could scream at the top of my lungs. What in the world is that? And then you have people out there saying, “Well, looting is a crime and crime needs to be deterred.” No, it’s just about victimizing and brutalizing people over and over and over again. When it comes to that, the police and the military in this country excel, but the second that it actually comes to any sort of crime prevention or any sort of real term strategies, particularly for poor and low income communities that experience the brunt of crime, like then then it’s just like, all they can do is offer shrugs. It’s just so frustrating. 


Read Part 2 of Ziyanda’s Interview here