South Africa’s turn to untrained black constables to maintain order as apartheid crumbled reveals the inherent limitations of community policing
“Choppers go off in my ’hood like Iraq, Cuba, Tel Aviv”
—T.I., featured on “Big Beast” by Killer Mike
Since last summer, cities around the U.S. have erupted in protest against aggressive policing. At issue is unchecked police power and violations of basic human rights, particularly in black communities. Well-meaning people (usually not residents of heavily policed black neighborhoods) think the police are the embodiment of the law, and that there are “good cops” who express the law well and “bad cops” who subvert it. Body cameras, stronger civilian oversight, and sensitivity training are suggested as ways to help the police better embody the law.
But there is a fundamental flaw in this thinking when applied to black communities. In black communities, the police are not the embodiment of the law. In actual practice, they stand between black communities, black bodies, and the possibility of governance by law. The liberal concept of civil society is one in which every individual is bound by the law. But what if the law exists to define boundaries between those it protects and those it cannot? It’s arguable that the law has never fully included black bodies or black communities in the first place. From the perspective of a racist society, black bodies are not simply “criminalized”. They are imagined as being without the law, lawless, which makes them “scarier,” “wilder,” and more vulnerable to being viciously hunted.
In hunting the lawless, police must become lawless themselves. Police are those forces that patrol the borders of civil society, trying to prevent refugees of an endless conflict with the poor, the black, the homeless, from experiencing the full protection of the law. To fulfill their duties, in practice and mentality, they must leave the realm in which law operates and enter into the field of war. This kind of war is always a race war. And there is no better place to watch the race war unfold than South Africa in the last years of the apartheid regime.
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The special constables were the biggest nonsense introduced by the state. They caused even more problems. They shot people unnecessarily. They were drunk on duty and rude most of the time. The problem was that they did not receive enough training … They were wild. The problem was that they were uneducated, but given guns and a high position.
—Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) interviews, Oudtshoorn
In the summer of 1986, during the last eight years of apartheid, the South African Police deputized civilians, mostly poor young men, to police black townships. The new deputies were tasked with systematically dismantling community-organized resistance. Given approximately six weeks of training, these “kitskonstabels,” or “instant constables” were alarmingly active, often taking the torture and killing of “suspects” into their own hands. What was most remarkable about this special force, however, was that they were black. By the late 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement, youth-led, large-scale, and based within the black townships but operating worldwide, was extremely difficult for state forces to control. The inauguration of the “blue lines,” or “bloupakke,” as they were colloquially known after the color of their uniforms, was an attempt to regain control of communities where anti-apartheid movements were seen to undermine or replace governance by the state. The new constables soon found themselves in an exceptional position: they were viewed both as a terroristic occupying force, open to attack by township residents and as expendable by the South African Police (SAP). According to the testimony of General van der Merwe of the SAP:
It’s unfortunate that these special constables did not enjoy the same privileges as members, full time members, of the [South African Police], with the result that there could have been—when they were exposed to certain incidents—that they could not have enjoyed the same protection as that given to full time members of the SAP. They delivered a valuable service to us and everything possible was done within — what was able to be done... Eventually we were forced to close down this force, or to transfer them to the permanent SAP, but they did not enjoy the same privilege as members of the SAP.
Dispatched to areas in which anti-apartheid rebellion was strongest, the blue force was part of a new policy of “black on black” policing, an aggressive move aimed at penetrating and disrupting community-based revolutionary organizations, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). As General Johan Coetzee, mastermind behind the kitskonstabel initiative, later told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “the onslaught, the revolutionary onslaught was many-faceted and in answer to that, in response to that, a many-faceted response was necessary including the use of … draconian laws… and illegal operations.” Coetzee’s words reflect a somewhat revisionist reading of the state of affairs in the late 1980s, implying that there were even laws for the police to subvert with “illegal operations” in black communities with strong anti-apartheid organizations. It is more accurate to say that whatever laws there were depended on the moment-to-moment interpretation of the policemen in the field, whose job it was to “restore order” to noncompliant communities.
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FORMER KITSKONSTABEL MKHIZE: We were at war with the ANC [and UDF]. We did barbaric things because we were at war. We wanted them to go through the same pain as we did.
Starting in July 1985, the South African government had declared an open-ended state of emergency especially targeting districts in the Eastern Cape and the Pretoria–Greater Johannesburg region (now called Gauteng). These densely populated areas were home to most of South Africa’s urban black population, the life force of the anti-apartheid movement. The localized state of emergency meant curfews, targeted attacks on suspected members of the ANC and UDF, bans on public gatherings, strict media restrictions, mass detentions, the killing of over 500 people (half of them directly at the hands of police), and even bans on funerals for youth activists. But most important, the state of emergency more closely aligned the police with the military, empowering police to treat “suspects,” even schoolchildren, as combatants, up to and including killing them. Home invasions, unlawful detentions, torture, and “eliminations,” even in broad daylight, became everyday interactions with police in black communities. The routinization of these extreme forms of violence served to intensify the increasingly violent atmosphere of the last years of the apartheid regime. In response to the police violence, some anti-apartheid community groups started to mirror paramilitary organizations, to defend themselves and to retaliate.
During the Emergency, alternative social structures, provided by organizations like the UDF, became indispensable to black communities. Michael Ndzotoyi, a former member of the UDF, in his plea for amnesty, explained to the TRC that community groups like his “arose out of the demise that we were faced with, that is the government could not function properly, it could not communicate with communities. These structures were there to administer, to see to problems that arose from the communities, to bring about tranquility amongst the communities.” But the peaceful nature of this work, Ndzotoyi admitted, had proved impossible for such groups to maintain under pressure:
There was total onslaught on the side of the government, that is, the apartheid government, against all progressive structures, organs of civil society. The struggle had reached its highest, it was on its highest at that time. The enemy was killing people like flies. What we regarded then as the enemy, was a composition of the following: the Kits Constables, the Police, the Special Branch, the South African Defense Force, askaris and informers. Those were the structures that composed at that given point, given time, the enemy.
Local young people like Ndzotoyi, often members of the UDF and other anti-apartheid groups, formed themselves into “Amabutho”—named for the Zulu warrior guilds—militia groups of young men who would defend the home front against perceived “invaders.” In the late 1980s, these organizations took on the role of defense forces, protecting their members from police, avenging deaths, weeding out and punishing suspected informants or community members suspected of being traitors to the black liberation movement, and openly targeting kitskonstabels, the most deeply embedded of the uniformed police.
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SADVOCATE SANDI: What is the code of conduct on the use of force? What does your profession say if you are in a situation where you have to use force, is there a code of conduct regulating your profession in that regard?
FORMER KITSKONSTABEL MTATI: It says that when you are in a situation like that and you have no way out you have to defend yourself in whichever way you can.
Kitskonstabels never had a way out. The lives of the young men who joined the blue lines appear to have been shaped by a combination of despair and naiveté. Growing up poor and black in the apartheid state, the offer of employment, of membership in a uniformed force, the promise of advancement into a stable profession, the lure of easy access to firearms, and the power of the state behind them proved, for many, impossible to resist. Amnesty testimonies of the former kitskonstabels reveal a vague, general interest in serving the community. Some even disavow knowledge of, and membership in, any political group prior to joining the force, though it became widely known that their prime directive was to infiltrate and disrupt political groups. By virtue of this task, the blue lines themselves were a kind of paramilitary political organization—a mirror image of the Amabutho.
Coming from the very communities they were sent to police, or from places just like them, the young men were asked to use their knowledge of the local community to hunt down “disruptive elements” and “eliminate” them. They were armed and sent out to war. Local bars and meeting places, the corner stores, the schools, bus stops, people’s homes and workplaces, all became battle sites. The new constables operated with little oversight, using their power to settle old slights and vendettas. A former co-worker with whom one was unfriendly now became a potential “activist” and might be abducted on the road home from work, taken to the police station and tortured. A bar fight over a shared lover might erupt in gunfire and later get written up as an operation to disband a gang of local agitators.
The kitskonstabels were a perversion of the “community policing” programs, often presented in the U.S. as a solution to the hostilities that arise when mostly white officers police mostly black neighborhoods. The idea generally goes that if officers become familiar with the communities they police, they can form strong ties with residents, which help them appear less as an occupying force and more as a benevolent source of law, order, and security. In the case of the South African kitskonstabels there were none more familiar with their “constituents” than they.
In his Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin describes the modern constitution not as the preserver of the peace but as the very sign that a great violence is already taking place. Constitutional law begins by defining the territory to be governed. It colonizes, establishes borders, asserts jurisdiction over bodies. In constitutional law, he argues, “we see most clearly that power, more than the most extravagant gain in property, is what is guaranteed by all lawmaking violence. Where frontiers are decided, the adversary is not simply annihilated; indeed he is accorded rights even when the victor’s superiority in power is complete.” The very act of drawing borders is the “primal phenomenon of all violence.”
Benjamin shows us that the constitution itself is evidence of the successful violent takeover of the land. And as for the rights it accords (some) of us, those are evidence of our prior defeat. To be born into “full citizenship” within conquered borders drawn by law and to exercise all the “human rights” that come with this coveted citizenship is already to accept without question the founding violence of the state in which we live. It is to create constant threats of expulsion and annihilation, of which the police are the living embodiment.
In black communities, the police act as rangers sent out from the conquered territories (those territories in which people are considered “law-abiding” citizens and afforded their contingent rights) into the lawless lands, teeming with “unlawful” bodies. Under these circumstances, police do not so much embody the law, as physically demonstrate its limit. The thing about the law is that because it gains its power from its ability to define territory and draw borders, it must then police those borders. After all, if the rule of law extended equally in all directions, without boundaries, to all, living and dead, human and nonhuman, without exception, then no one and no place would be “lawless,” and there could be no threat of expulsion. Under borderless conditions there would be no talk of “enforcing the law” and “fighting for human rights,” no sinister powers needing checks and balances. And power—holding on to it at all cost, that is—is exactly what the rule of law is all about. It is never about “justice.”
By the end of apartheid, the kitskonstabels were disbanded, disavowed by the South African Police. Public outcry against their abuses had only galvanized the anti-state activists that their presence was meant to weaken. Their precarious employment position, as a provisionary force during the Emergency, meant that they were not eligible for full pay, pensions, honors, and other benefits accorded the regular police. Instead they became scapegoats and cautionary tales about disloyalty to the race, casualties of the war against apartheid. Despite their inglorious history, the kitskonstabels bear remembering. Their existence is evidence of the fundamentally lawless nature of policing, especially of the poor and those beyond the borders of “civil” society.
The story of the kitskonstabels demonstrates that adding police forces into racialized communities, whose very existence is threatening to the state, is always an act of race war. Black communities do not need “better” policing, more “aggressive” policing, more “community” policing, more “black-on-black” policing, or any other kind of additional policing. Being systematically excluded from the law and cast into a state of perpetual emergency is a condition that increased police presence only amplifies. Rather, these communities require what they always have fought for: justice, self-determination, and the space to construct real alternatives to apartheid. The only way police could help in this fight against apartheid is by laying down their weapons, and telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about what they have done.
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Testimony of Constable MKHIZE: At the Gundani attack, as I have pointed out, there were three of us [constables] and we lay flat on our stomach. I remember I had a hand grenade and also I had an RG5 or something like that. We also had rifles, all of us and we also had pistols, magazines and magazines which were loaded, because we wanted to hit as many people in the bus as we could.
When this bus approached, which bus we knew and thought was ferrying the people from the rally, and knowing that that was the ANC area, the bus came to a halt and we were laying just next to the bus stop, laying in a touchment pattern such as would be the case in an extended line.
Each one of us had their own positions in readiness for firing, deciding as to whether we were going to hit the wheels from the front or the back, and vice versa, and everybody would aim at a particular position and those who were getting off the bus. That is how we have planned our attack.
We did exactly that and I still remember very well that I was the one who was supposed to pull off the hand grenade pin and throw it into the bus so that they could be confused at which time we would start shooting. That we did. When the bus grounded to a halt, I threw in the hand grenade, it exploded inside and we started shooting. There was a lot of pandemonium in the bus. Diesel started leaking, we continued shooting.
I have no idea how many people died, I cannot be certain but yes, we did that. I remember that I was not arrested for that incident and I was not even prosecuted for that, none among us were prosecuted or asked about the incident, but people, yes, were injured and some died, even though I don’t know how many and who they were.