Ziyanda Stuurman : The colonial origins and mandates of policing in South Africa, the private security market, and abolition (Part 2 of 2)
Photo Credit: New Frame News
Part two of this interview is below, to read part one, click here:
Kim M Reynolds: You kind of you detail the industry of private security, which is really interesting for me as well, something that I’ve been kind of thinking about deeply and particularly the ways that private security has taken up so much validity in the space of what is safe and the kinds of outside capitalistic influences that determine the tone and the direction of policing in South Africa. Because, you know, you have G4S which has such a pronounced presence on the continent, as well as a flourishing private security market within South Africa, which is something that Thami Nkosi who we interviewed last year also spoke about. There are also things like ShotSpotter in Cape Town, the gunshot detection technology that cost the city 32million rand and very little to aid ‘crime’ in the Cape Flats. What does all of this private security and its market reveal to you both personally and from like this larger perspective of the superstructure? You know?
Ziyanda Stuurman: I mean, one of the one of the biggest things about it is always just going to be the fact that the perceptions of crime that we have in South Africa, and particularly when I say even me, I’m specifically talking about the middle class who can afford private security. It’s just that these perceptions and misperceptions of crime are incredibly profitable. They make so much money for that entire industry. And, you know, I mean, the whole point of private security is really to protect private property. It has nothing to do with community safety, nothing to do with preventing crime, nothing to do with, you know, addressing the social roots or ills of crime. So as long as there’s this hyper sort of sensitivity and perceived vulnerability to crime and especially to violent crime, you know, that industry is going to be unbelievably profitable and just huge.
And particularly on Thami’s point [about former MK soldiers owning private security companies] I mean, there certainly are private security companies that are owned by former soldiers, and that also has to do with again, the political elite in this country and sort of using a lot of that political office to to gain economic power as well. But let me put it this way, your largest sort of ownership structures and managerial structures are still old white men, particularly Afrikaans ones, and particularly those who are involved with security services or the security sector and in the old apartheid regimes. So you know, you have this industry that functions as a continuation of a lot of the sort of old security structures from apartheid and who owns them. And then you see that the vast majority of your average security guards who are not well paid, who are not particularly well trained and who have to work overnight shifts and do work that is undesirable really are young Black men or even young Black immigrant men as well. So you just you have this entire sector that is just a replication of South Africa’s inequality where, you know, there’s just huge benefit in mistrust and distrust of the police and continued sort of whipping up of incompetence of the police, which the police themselves really sort of help private security advertise itself truly. And then you have this incredibly exploitative industry as well. I write about it at the end of the book that, I think, this is always going to be the biggest stumbling block to anything that we do around abolition or abolitionist work that really tries to reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system. Is that how do you do that without, first of all, making the private security industry even larger than it is, and then secondly, because, you know, not everybody is going to buy into an abolitionist vision immediately and we even see that in in America with ‘it shouldn’t be called defund the police. It should be called blah blah blah’ you know, to make it more palatable to people. But we also have to literally dismantle the private security industry like it cannot exist along alongside, you know, pro abolitionists sort of thinking that I think a lot of people would just sort of privatize their fear of crime, really, and they would pay to then have private security. So, it’s just such a huge stumbling block. And I mean, the industry itself will never self regulate. There’s the Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Act, and I think it might have been signed by [Cyril] Ramaphosa already, but it was meant to be signed by him last year at some point. And even that just had like deep, deep traces and evidence of the private security industry lobbying to have the sort of softest regulation possible of that industry. So it’s huge, it’s a huge economic force and it’s not going anywhere. So whether it’s fake news, whether it’s very selective media narratives, whether it’s just sort of continued fears around policing, that is still going to be very profitable for them going forward.
Kim M Reynolds: Mmm hm. Yeah. When you were talking, it made me think about the affective economy, just the economy of feelings or people’s feelings of unsafety. And in moving forward, I’m interested in what more is there is to learn for you after having written this book? What were some of the other avenues that you’re interested in?
Ziyanda Stuurman: I think one of the most interesting conversations I had during writing this book was with a female police officer. She’s now retired. I was connected to her through a friend of a friend and particularly connected to her daughter. And that’s how I set up the interview. So I had quite a few conversations with police officers, but who obviously wanted to be off the record, so to speak very, very bluntly about their experiences, which I completely understand. And so a lot of our conversations didn’t necessarily make it into the book. But if I was going to write a second book, it would definitely be sort of rooted in her life, but then trying to understand the experiences of particularly Black women within the SAPS (South African Police Service). I mean, she joined the police service in 1979 at 19 years old and was in the police service for 40 years and just has the most fascinating insights into patriarchy within the police service, but within sort of society as well. You know what it meant to be a 19 year old joining the police service and pretty much a police service, obviously, that was completely reviled by the very same people that, you know, that they were meant to protect and who they were policing. Yeah, that just opened a portal where I was like, I want to read and learn and interview so many more people about that. Because it just that speaks to just so much about South African society and the nature of gender equality and inequality and, you know, the patriarchy of policing. I think at this point 32 percent of the police officers in South Africa are women. And in any sort of recruitment, it’s touted as, you know, a good stable job and what that means for women who need to provide for themselves and to provide for their families and what the actual sort of police culture within the SAPS is as well. So that’s definitely is food for thought. And if I did write the second book, that would 100 percent be the focus, because there’s also just so little writing about. I think there are some ethnographies of policing, but none that have focused on those experiences. So, yeah, very, very, very interested in that.
Kim M Reynolds: Yeah. That is, that is that is really fascinating. And I guess really speaks to how there are limited and complex choices for Black people. It makes me think of the history of Black informants in the US. I hope that you get to that work. And kind of moving in that direction, what does justice and safety mean for you given that so many South Africans have to make their own definitions of safety. What are other avenues for justice that maybe outside the definition of the state of the court, which you thoroughly apply and explore in your book?
Ziyanda Stuurman: And I mean, I think definitely for me personally, it just it really means living in a in a just society where we aren’t living in a world or operating in a society or economy that thrives off of or is even built off of this idea that there has to be a permanent underclass of people who I you know, whose labor we exploit and whose wages we steal or who we sort of make live on the margins of our society. And we just sort of benefit off of what they do every day. that that truly, I think, is the only sort of definition of justice. Interestingly writing the book, one of the most interesting chapters was on courts and particularly kind of looking at class action litigation, which a lot of it is sort of centered around communities needing to sue government to sort of fulfill basic duties of housing or water and sanitation or other issues. And one of the most interesting quotes that came out of that was from a member of a community that was doing exactly that. They said that for them, you know, being in court was exactly the same as being heard that even if they didn’t necessarily win the litigation that they were in, even if their socioeconomic circumstances didn’t change immediately, it was the fact that these sort of powerful politicians had to listen to them in a courtroom and had to and that they were very much equals with those people. So I guess when I think of justice outside of a court system, it’s exactly that, that everybody feels like they have both a stake in the country, have a stake in society, but also that their voice matters, that their opinions matter, that they are not, you know, sort of shunted into this position where no one’s ever listening or no one’s ever paying attention, which I think is also just an incredibly interesting sort of part of justice that’s not necessarily procedural, but it’s also real substantive justice for people.
When it comes to definitions, I guess if I could change definitions it would be a definition of safety for a lot of people. I think it would be understanding that, you know, again, my safety doesn’t doesn’t mean to want or need to be predicated on the idea that, you know, again, somebody else is in prison and that they’re sort of rotting away for any sort of perceived injustice or crime against me. But also at the same time, understanding that, you know, particularly, I think with police officers, that if we say that that police brutality is fine in these circumstances against these groups we don’t like, including, you know, sort of gangs or petty thieves or whatever it is that that leaves us all open to being brutalized by police. That it isn’t a case of, you know, the police will ask you, “What do you do?” or “Can I see your business card?” before sort of deciding if they’re if they’re going to, you know, use excessive force or whatever. I was doing an interview with The Daily Vox, and they asked me, you know, you speak about all of these organizations that are doing great work in terms of police accountability and reform and if an average person wanted to get involved, you know, how could they? And so I obviously added that and said that, you know, supporting those organizations is a great place to start, but also at the same time, it’s things like with a local election coming up, the ward councilors are going to be asking for my vote and I’m very much going to be asking all of them, particularly because I live and Sea Point, what are they doing to to advance inclusive housing in Sea Point. There are two sites that could be turned into a low income, inclusive housing very quickly. And so what are they doing to make sure that that happens? Because housing justice a huge part of a city and a neighborhood that works for for people, but also bringing people closer to economic opportunities, bringing them closer to better schools, et cetera, et cetera, that, you know, all of that has as a long term effect on growth and and safety and and sustainability over the long term. So it’s not just about sort of looking at it as these big actions of we need to replace their police minister, we need to do X, Y and Z, but literally, even in your own community, you know, asking who is the chair of the community policing forum and what are their views on policing, or asking your local station commander besides sort of patrols or whatever, what else are you doing to prevent crime, but in a way that isn’t targeting and racially profiling people or profiling people experiencing homelessness? Because thats usually it, that the police constantly sort of lock up people all the time and respond to suburbanites saying, “oh, there’s a homeless person down my street, I feel unsafe with them walking around”. Just this idea that, like, you know, police aren’t customer service and they’re not here to remove people who you don’t like or who like who you are racistly, honestly suspicious of. And just literally understanding that we can’t keep feeding people into a criminal justice system that just exacerbates inequality and police brutality.
Kim M Reynolds: Mm hmm I hear you, and you’re kind of leading into the next question, which is you’ve said this book is aimed at middle class South Africans? Do you mean all middle class South Africans or specifically middle class Black South Africans? Why and how is this a useful resource in that context?
Ziyanda Stuurman: Yeah, and I think broadly of the middle class, I mean, I found especially in my interactions with with other Black South Africans who are also middle class, that there’s very much a similar same sort of feeling of, you know, ‘well, we need to do something about crime and it’s a good thing that the police are out in full force cetera’, those usual sort of tropes that are that are put out there. So for me at least, I really don’t see a difference between a Black middle class and a white middle class understanding of crime, very broadly speaking. And I spoke to someone the other day who’s a lecturer in anthropology at Wits University, and he’s now made chapter five of my book on police brutality, required reading for his cause. And I mean, I could not be more grateful because that’s also exactly the type of people that I’m trying to reach as well, that, you know, eventually these are people who are also going to be part of NGOs, for example, or part of the professional class. And so if we start thinking deeply about, you know, the concepts of crime, safety and violence in South Africa at that level, that that sort of really starts to enter mainstream conversations as well. And it’s not just the sort of repetitive drumbeat of “you know, all the time of, oh, the police are broke, they need more money, we should definitely vote for politicians who run on that sort of line.” My dream is to have this book also taught at some level to law students, especially. I think so many law students go into that particular profession almost unquestioningly and don’t really sort of think of transforming the justice system in South Africa. I get that there was a level of transformation, especially post 1994, but there is still, you know, those vestiges that are left of that even when there are alternatives to, you know, sending people to prison that are available. A good friend of mine is a junior prosecutor in Potchefstroom and he often says that people, you know, your average person and even lawyers themselves don’t know that if somebody is struggling with drug addiction, that the only option isn’t just to sort of hand them over to the police and get them charged for, you know, minor housebreaking or whatever it is. But that there is actually a way to try and get them into court ordered rehabilitation. And I mean, that’s really not a perfect solution, but it’s an alternative, you know, to them being in prison or lounging in prison for months and, you know, possibly being exposed to abuse in prison and even sort of intimidation or then end up joining a gang. It’s just this idea, again, I think that what we have doesn’t doesn’t need to be what we keep and what we sort of take forward, and that there really needs to be deep thinking on so many levels from so many different people on how we change both the criminal justice system, but also the larger society that mirrors, I think, and shapes, what we see as safety and and justice.
Kim M Reynolds: I’m interested in what you think about abolition, who you think is contributing to the vision. And then also, you know, what is abolition offer to to black women and queer people in South Africa?
Ziyanda Stuurman: Erm I mean it’s so that’s a really interesting one. And if you, if you haven’t read her work yet or reached out to her, I think you should definitely speak to say Sohela Surajpal. She works as a law clerk at the Constitutional Court at the moment and she got her master’s thesis at the University of Pretoria. She wrote her thesis on prison abolition as a decolonial and human rights imperative in Africa specifically. And she does a really great job of sketching why and how prison systems came to be on the African continent, and obviously the answer is colonialism, and makes a really strong case for why prison abolition for a lot of African countries, and particularly South Africa, you know, makes sense going forward. And she I think, if I’m not mistaken, one of the examples that she uses very, very clearly from Uganda specifically is also about the way that the law, the courts and the prison system has specifically been used to to jail and brutalize queer people in Uganda, over the last couple of years as really a political tool. Yoweri Museveni who’s been the dictator there for the past, like five decades now, is hanging on to power by doing exactly that. And I mean, now we literally see the same thing happening in Ghana, you know, with the with their president pushing a bill to criminalize homosexuality. So you have this I think she just has such compelling work. I also talk about in the book that there’s this very sort of undying myth that, you know, prisons, especially the way that they originated in South Africa, had to do with reform and rehabilitation of people who, you know, have sort of lost their way or whatever it is. And I mean, like nothing could be further from the truth, truly.
And I think it’s exactly that [abolition], that it’s truly about shattering people’s ideas of what prisons are supposed to be, but also who is in prisons, especially right now. It’s poor black people and mostly for very petty crimes. And so when you I think when you kind of liberate people from this myth and this idea that that’s the point of prison, it’s rehabilitation, that, you know, people are supposed to come out of it with her, quote unquote, on the other side, then that really just starts to dismantle this idea that we can rely on prisons, especially as a place of of both justice, but also some sort of societal reform. I think it’s going to be a long, hard journey to getting people to, first of all, understanding and then being open to abolition, especially in South Africa, because a lot of what I’ve also encountered is people saying it’s an american idea and you just want to replicate american thinking and ideas. And that’s what I really try to do with a book to say that in 1955, literally, you know, you had these drafters of the Congress of the people who in their mind envisioned this very, very different society and part of that being a very, very different, you know, court system, prison system and and police service and even the military. And that specifically, they motivated all of those institutions to play the smallest possible role in society the Freedom Charter stated something along the lines of the prison systems would at that point outlaw forced labor because that was a really big part of the prison system and again, I think if people understood that that would that that would change their opinions. And that I think the really, really interesting way to frame it, that, you know, it’s not just about putting people, you know, in prison for petty theft or for even drug use, because that has nothing to do with the great idea of community safety. We have a criminal justice system now and it doesn’t produce justice, it doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t. All it does in my mind is suck a lot of value out of our society and into continuing an unjust system.
And lastly on that point, there are groups wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re for abolition, per say, but they are moving us towards that, include Abahlali baseMjondolo , who just do the most amazing work, you know, tackling police and political violence in KZN and in other parts of the country, but particularly against poor shack dwellers. And that’s how they they see themselves as being a shack dweller movement. Similarly with SWEAT, sex workers education and advocacy taskforce, and so much of the work that they do, you know, specifically around policing of sex workers. And I mean, we know that many, many women and many quuer people and particularly trans people are engaged in sex work. And you know just how revolutionary that would be if we had some sort of police service, but also a wider criminal justice system that, you know, that didn’t prey on constantly throwing all of those groups in prison and essentially criminalizing their activities. So there is plenty of pro abolitionist work that is already going on out there and not necessarily under the banner of abolition. But, you know, if you sort of look at the larger idea and building of communities of care, that definitely is geared towards precisely what abolition looks towards as well.
Kim M Reynolds: Yeah, I agree, I think yeah, I think it’s really hard to shift out of these really strict and narrow and ironically policed ideas of what safety and punishment all look like.
But my last question to you is what is your assessment of the tech and surveillance and policing space in South Africa? These kinds of thought spaces and even NGOs tend to be overrun by white/ white liberal processes, so I wanted to know where you find your voice and where radical and antagonistic voices find expression within the field?
Ziyanda Stuurman: Yeah, I mean, that’s really, really interesting because I think what definitely happens is that there community leaders and community spaces that are out there that aren’t almost even want to say aren’t necessarily as sort of, you know, media savvy. And so it’s then, you know, always going to be, I think, a little bit harder to understand those spaces and to I think especially sort of get in touch with those with those groups.I would definitely say that Triangle Project in Cape Town actually does a really, really good job of that and they’re constantly trying to root their activism and their work in community based organizations. I think that, you know, there’s also the work that the Social Justice Coalition does that’s also really, really great. And, you know, they specifically are within Khayelitsha and are doing work in that community, but never like for the community more than with the community, which I think is always just a great way to just sort of look at that. I mean, the greatest critique, honestly, that I will always have is that, you know, having been in the NGO space for a bit and even now to a certain extent, sort of in academic spaces, is just that there’s so much space taken up. I think also even by even researchers like myself that, you know, that if you don’t sort of try and position your work as not ever trying to speak for or over, I think especially communities that are most affected by crime and violence, but rather working for those communities, that I think it can very quickly get sort of swept up in the entire idea that, like you’re speaking for these communities and then 90 percent of the time you end up speaking over the community. So I think that’s always my sort of critique of these sort of NGOs spaces. I constantly ask when I’m asked to be on a panel, you know, who else will be there and if there isn’t. And I kind of shun the role of activist completely because I’m just like, I don’t work every day with community members that I write about and work with in terms of research. And I think that they’re just too few people who do exactly that, to ask, whose perspective do you want me to speak from or speak for and sort of where that comes from; I’m just always hypersensitive about that. And I think that that’s not something that’s done effectively enough, honestly. I know they’re great organizations that do really, really great work. And I think if people were more willing to connect, especially the media, you know, to exactly those people, then I think we’d have, over time, a much different understanding of both crime and who’s really a victim of crime and who’s made a victim of crime over and over again.
Kim M Reynolds: That is the conclusion of my questions. Thank you so much, I learned so much and gained a lot of clarity. I really appreciate it. I really enjoy just listening to you speak. It’s really, really poignant. Thank you.