In today's Business Day Jonny Steinberg tells of his anxiety for South African society. He attended the scene of a murder with the South African police and the experience did not portend good things.
The uniformed patrol I was accompanying came to the scene about 25 minutes after the murder. Together with a stunned and largely silently group of Ephraim’s neighbours, we stood there until dawn watching the paraphernalia of murder-scene procedure unfold: the paramedics who pronounced the man dead, the police photographer with his studio lights and cameras, the detective, and finally, the mortuary van.
The gathering of neighbours spoke very quietly among themselves.
I stood close to them and listened. They talked of two Zimbabwean brothers, Saul and Steve, who had lived in this informal settlement until a month ago, men who carried guns, who were quick to bully, and who had threatened Ephraim and his brother many times. Steve, they said, had been seen in the shack settlement that afternoon for the first time in four weeks. He had been with his friend Chookies, another troublemaker; Chookies’s shack was visible from here; he and Steve could well be in that shack now.
Some in the gathering conferred with Ephraim’s younger brother. Was it indeed Steve? Did you recognise him? I didn’t hear his answer, but I know that in the coming weeks, these people would stick to their suspicion that Steve was the murderer.
The delusion came the following Monday when the investigating officer was assigned the murder. Jonny tagged along again. They interviewed several witnesses.
But nobody spoke of two Zimbabweans called Saul and Steve, nor of their friend Chookies, nor of Chookies’s shack. They said they had no idea who the killers were. It was dark, Ephraim’s brother said; I could not see.
Jonny sounded out an older investigating officer about this perplexing turn of events.
“You should not be so surprised,” Sgt T told me. “People do not speak to an investigating officer if they don’t know him.”
“Because who’s to say what he’ll do with the information they give him? Maybe he’ll sell it to the murderer, and then those who have spoken are in big trouble. The only people who speak to an investigating officer are his informers.”
Then Jonny asks us to think about what has just transpired.
It is worth pausing for a moment and taking in the scene.
A man is murdered in front of a witness. The investigating officer, an agent of the state, appointed by it to investigate the taking of a human life, is assumed, when he arrives, to be a shabby entrepreneur.
Indeed, as far as Ephraim’s neighbours are concerned, the state will never arrive on this scene. There are only entrepreneurs here, only buyers and sellers of information; everyone is potentially treacherous.
When thoughts like these are widely held they become self-fulfilling. For if nobody is prepared to talk to a cop they don’t know, then the only information that ever flows is exchanged for money, for allegiances, for loyalty. It is a game, every player is an informer of sorts, and who is to say who is working for whom?
Then Jonny proposes we take the long view as to understand the genesis of this state of affairs. To him this is due apartheid.
Under white rule, black urban spaces were never properly policed. People in search of security — and who isn’t? — could not turn to the state and so they went elsewhere. Throughout the 20th century, security was traded in urban spaces, for money, out of ethnic loyalty, out of political solidarity.
Mhambi only agrees to an extent with Jonny on this. Apartheid and colonialism only can answer to this to some extent. Has a comparative study been done north of South Africa's borders to see whether other African police forces engender more trust with the local population? Yes, and corruption and fear of the police appears to be rife all over the continent. In fact South Africa, the country that suffered white domination for longest, is at the top of the right end of the African corruption league table.
Jonny does concede that his answer is only partially right -
"This is, of course, just the beginning of the story. There are further questions about why. They relate to police management, and to the government’s understanding of the nature of the South African populace.
Mhambi has been racking his brains recently to try and understand corrupt behavior in South Africa. Then Xolela Mangcu wrote an article where he quoted a book “The Criminalisation of the state in Africa”.
In the book they call corruption the privatisation of public resources, which is a rather interesting definition.
The book claims that a number of factors conspire to make African administrations criminal. One of the strongest is that - contrary to popular opinion - African culture is highly individualistic.
It highlights the enduring corrupting impact of existing and invisible family and tribal relationships on governing and government: an invisible nebulous state.
Another conspiring factor is the value attached to what they call “the trickster” in African culture: The hero status of the individual that can bend the rules, and get away with it to make it big.
The book also points out that African populations only know their government for its coercive power and not service delivery.
Before the onset of centralised colonial administrations, the only forms of tax paid in Africa were forms of tribute and submissions (with no services rendered in return) paid to local chiefs. If you did not pay you were liable to armed raids: it was coercive power.
Even in the colonial period the vast majority of taxes in most African countries were collected from foreign companies and by customs officials with respect to trade.
Today taxes are still seen by the general public as an expression of the states external sovereignty (in the form of taxes on foreigners and trade flows) but also an expression of the states coercive power.
The coercive power is demonstrated by the principle of taxing the weak, and those that are not directly connected to those in power.
Jonny Steinberg is a visiting research fellow at Oxford University’s African Studies Centre. It is time for the likes of Jonny to start investigating the nature of our society in earnest. We really do need to get to the bottom of this lack of social cohesion and trust. Sphere: Related Content