Every two years or so this really nice training gig comes up. I grab two boxes of files and some branded pens, get on two planes and head to Kimberley in the Northern Cape.
I’m hired to train a unit within the South African Police Service how to fire those within their ranks who contravene Regulation 20 (z) of their disciplinary code.
Regulation 20 (z) is reserved for murderers, armed robbers, rapists, fraudsters and, mostly, extortionists. Owing to a useful quirk in our law of evidence, it is easier and faster to dismiss cops who commit criminal offences than it is to put them behind bars; the latter hardly ever happening. The idea behind Regulation 20 (z) is that, even if a rogue cop demanding R300 from an illegal immigrant is never convicted of this crime, he will at least lose his badge and gun.
I should quickly admit that contributing to this high-minded mission is not why I enjoy the SAPS training so much. Mine are perverse reasons. I get a thrill out of being picked up at the airport in a marked car by crisply uniformed lads, whisked from a guesthouse to the Galeshewe Cluster Headquarters every morning and then, once within this nerve centre, to not only move around freely among the top brass, but to have my words taken in by 45 of the most impressive among them.
Not anyone can come to the course. The police are rank conscious and this firing business falls only to colonels and above. One must moreover apply to be in this task team. It tends to attract a sort of cop so zealous about enforcing the law that he or she is prepared to consort with whores, petty crooks and other dodgy complainants to do so. These disreputable citizens are cherished witnesses in the treacherous enterprise of prosecuting fellow officers taking cho-cho or a blow-job.
It’s an odd picture: me lecturing a hoary squad of middle-aged, career law-enforcement agents, dripping with moustache. As someone whose presentation was, for most of my adult life, shaped so much in reference to the repression meted out by the ‘state apparatus’, a secret irony enlivens this encounter. What is a leftie doing here? And yet, at another level, there is no irony at all. There are few as cynical about the police force as the ‘internal affairs’ characters who daily delve into the corrupt and violent dealings of their brethren in blue.
I guess I regard the half ironic, half logical relationship with ‘internal affairs’ as cover. I am spared the final denouncement of working directly for the police because, can’t you see, I am helping the underclass: sex workers, illegal immigrants and other worthies the cops mess around.
Over the years I have grown fond of some of these detectives. Months afterward, they still phone me with a query or case. Theirs is an unenviable job. The accused usually comes with a pernickety attorney, raising technicalities from beginning to end. It’s a dangerous job. Some hearing venues have to be secured by a tactical response unit, all R5’s, body armour and earpieces. A witness, here, would be in protection. This is because when cops go bad, they go very bad. A fired factory worker goes to the CCMA. A fired professor goes to the press. Occasionally, a postman goes postal. A bad cop, however, is far worse. He’s often got a mafia behind him. In a recent case in Kuruman, an officer was summoned to appear on charges to do with diamond smuggling. While his fast-talking advocate tried to stall the enquiry, the officer’s cronies in a syndicate took out a contract on the life of the prosecutor in the hearing.
There’s lots of politics at play in hearings too. To give an example: during his corrupt reign as head of the police, S’s nephew, (also in SAPS and rapidly advancing), was charged with serious and repeated misconduct. The chairperson who handled his case was a crew-cut Afrikaner. Can you imagine the leaning-on he had to take as the hearing unfolded? And take it, he did. He did this in the name of an unbendingness, not to the rules the nephew broke, but an unbendingness to being leaned upon.
I admire those qualities in a person. It reminds me of the best episodes of The Wire. If I had time, and with all the stompies I’ve picked up, I’d script a South Africanized, copycat version, set in Kimberley called The Naaier.
Cops in the disciplinary task team have a short shelf life. After a few years they are so hated, conflicted, threatened and stressed, they clamour to return to their previous commands. And so, a new bunch come in, brimming with ideals, eager to kick arse. Hence the perennial need for training, which yours truly delights in profitably filling.
On the evening of the fourth day of the course this December, I organized a braai for the task team. It was the least I could do after the week’s yabbering. The venue was an el-cheapo game lodge on a dirt road outside town called Night Breeze. The facility consisted of a square building plonked in the middle of the veld, surrounded by a game fence twenty metres away on all sides.
Inside was an ill-stocked cash bar with animal heads fixed to the face-brick wall. The pub is called O’Sullivan’s on account of an Irish couple having hosted their wedding reception there. Outside, cement tables are arranged around a pit to make fire. Patrons stand and eat at these tables, each accommodating eight or so people.
The car that brought me arrived a bit late and everyone was already there. I was determined to have a good time. A half moon glided through wispy clouds above the scrubby thorn trees just beyond the fence. The braaivleis coals glowed like a Cylon’s eyes. A murmur of chit-chat, punctuated by short laughs and shouts, wafted my way. Most of the members of the task team were brought in from the far-flung towns of the Northern Cape. They did not know each other very well but I hoped that beef and alcohol would change that as the night wore on.
The effect of the furnishings went against my plan. Four distinct groups of cops formed, one each at an unmovable table. The General on the course and three Brigadiers were sort of on their own, holding their pose. Then there was a table of black cops, most from outside the Cape, promoted in. Then a table of white and coloured cops jealously sharing a bottle of Richelieu. At the last table, sparsely populated, sat some teetotallers.
I was disappointed to observe the usual South African social scene. In lectures, camaraderie and morale seemed high but this cliquish arrangement was so typical and spoke of a conflicted and unhappy workplace. As the nominal host of the event, I moved between tables but I could see no way, other than by imposing myself embarrassingly, to integrate everyone.
As the fire died down and bottles emptied, the mood changed. When I noticed again, the brandy table switched not only to Afrikaans but that flat, earthy dialect spoken by the coloureds of the province. Polite conversation gave way to guffaws. The General was in the thick of this group by now. So too were those Black guys from the Northern Cape who abandoned the affirmative action imports from Limpopo or KZN who could not follow the guttural hilarity among the doppers. It was that part of the evening when people begin reminiscing, telling jokes and teasing each other.
So many things were said that night that struck me as profound and I assure you I was drinking only Coke.
One cop enquired about a certain Wollie in Springbok working at Standard Bank, who played keyboard.
‘No, old Wollie was mos fired for assaulting a customer’, said a tall cop who lived in the little town.
‘Really what happened?’
‘You know about his younger brother?’
‘No, what about him?’
‘He’s got then this nickname, Growwe Nqu, and until today he totally loses it if you call him by it.
The speaker paused to inform those of his listeners not familiar with the Nama langauge that Nqu is the word for balsak, hence the name means rough or scaly scrotum.
‘But how do people know to call him this? Who can report on what his balsak looks likes?’ someone asked.
‘Fuck knows’, said the tall cop. ‘But if you call Wollie’s brother, Growwe Nqu, and you get away from him today, he’ll hit you in a week’s time when he finds you in the street with a spade. Which is exactly what happened. He got a suspended sentence for assault in 2010’.
‘But how did that get Wollie fired at the bank?’
‘Because the owner of the Shell garage, he called Growwe Nqu by his nickname. And so Wollie had then to moer him right outside the bank. Wollie told me it was his duty to do it, because with the sentence hanging over his boet, he couldn’t do it himself’.
Laughter followed this story and quite a few appeals to the Good Lord. A grey-haired cop with terrible problems with his knees reminded everyone of the way a certain businessman was worked over in 2009 when he threatened an investigator in the task team. The working over sounded, marginally, like a violation of Regulation 20 (z) and my heart soared. I envied these people their easy banter, their complicated connectedness to a common mission, even just their readiness to come out together of a night.
I was surprised these cops spoke so forthrightly about the undercurrents of their situation. To be a colonel you were probably a cop already during apartheid. Nowadays many coloured and black members have rapidly leapfrogged erstwhile white commanders in rank. Sometimes this is for equity reasons, sometimes on merit suddenly unleashed. People on both sides of this equation were at the braai and discussed this phenomenon with a level of openness at once tender and fraught. And yet, undercurrents and all, an important job had to be done. On this, eyes lit up. They cleared decks. And the most respected among them did not carry the most – but fired the most – brass.
And then came the joke about Paradise. In fact, it is so layered, it is more theology than comedy and it goes like this.
Het jy gehoor van die Boer, die Engelsman en die kleurling wat in ‘n bakkie ry wat omslaan? Toe hulle weer kyk is hulle vrek en hulle staan langs St. Peter voor die hekke van die Paradys. St. Peter kyk hulle aan en se, ‘Manne, julle kannie in die hemel toegelaat word met daai vuil klere nie. Julle sal moet uitrek’.
Wel, niemand stry nie en later aan staat hulle kaalgat voor St. Peter.
Hy wys so vir die Boer se piel en vra, ‘Ou boet, voor ek besluit of jy in of uit is, vertel bietjie wat jy met daardie tottie alles gemaak hey’.
‘Nee, Oom Peter, ek het niks verkeert gedoen nie. Met die piel het ek maar net gepis’.
St. Peter, stel toe die selle vraag aan die Engelsman. ‘Mister, what did you all do with your penis when you were alive?’
‘Nee, sir, se hy, ek het ook niks gesondig met my penis nie. Ek het maar net met hom gepis.
‘En jy’, vra St Peter vir die kleurling, ‘kyk daai lang, vrot voel van jou. Wat het jy alles met hom gemaai?’
‘Ek sallie vir Baas Peter jok nie’, se die kleurling. ‘Die piel het die kant toe gesteek, en daai kant toe genaai. Dis ‘n feit. Daar issie ‘n vrou wat wou, wat nie van die piel gekry het nie.’
St. Peter knik sy kop en se vir die kleurling. ‘Jy kan maar ingaan’. Maar vir die Boer en die Engelsman se hy hulle moet fokof.
Hulle kan dit nie glo nie. Hulle vra luid vir St Peter, ‘Maar hoekom kan die boesman, na als wat hy met sy piel gedoen het, ingaan en ons nie’.
‘Luister kerels’, se St. Peter, ‘daar binne is dit Paradys, nie ‘n pisplek nie’.
At half past eleven, after the first cop asked the general for permission to leave the function, everyone made for their vehicles too. And so it was that I found myself moving in a posse of twenty government vehicles weaving along a dirt road late at night, and as the cars took their own direction at the T-junction, they briefly lit their blue lights, one by one, even the car I was in.
I started the night of the colonels in patronage. It ended in respect.
The reason I was late for the braai is that one of the organizers of a ‘Climate Justice’ march taking place in my hometown, Durban, phoned for urgent advice. They’d launched a court application to be allowed to march along a certain route before handing over a memorandum to representatives of COP 17. Mike Sutcliffe, city manager, met with the organizers and they agreed to modify the route. They verbally agreed to ditch the court application. However, the lawyer running their case insisted they should still go to court. Was this necessary? They expected trouble and tricks. We spoke about this and other things and it felt reassuring reverting to my habitual, deprecatory use of the phrase, ‘the cops’.
I returned to Durban on the day of the Climate Justice march. Once again I was late for the party and only got to see its culmination. South Africa’s Minister of International Relations was given a platform. She accepted the memorandum of complaint and assured the crowd of about 5000 that their voices, as civil society, were an important and valued part of the conference. She would place their issues before the parties negotiating a climate treaty and she thanked them for coming.
If the march was about celebrating diversity by assembling trade unionists, professional NGO workers, ‘members of the faith community’, a delegation of rural women, filmmakers, aspirant Occupiers, environmentalists, leftwing academics, dreadlocked white people, clowns (formally declaring themselves as such) and the overdue phenomena of topless women, it was a moderate success.
The fact that demands were contradictory and that behind the facades of most of the participating movements lay trifling ‘grassroots’ constituencies should not matter. The thing the Left learnt well from post-modernism is that power does not vest in numbers but in subjectivity. And since there is no author too, I suppose it should not matter that the cellphone number appearing at the bottom of a press statement by the Rural Women’s Assembly, belongs to a well-off Trotskyist and professional NGO funder. She is, at least, a woman.
If the march was a measure, on the other hand, of the strength, support, stature and strategic nous of those seeking to counter the hegemony of financial capital in its destruction of this planet, then it ran on empty. The proliferation of flamboyant and well-websited movements is less a sign of a powerful diversity and more of niche marketing. Alas, from the anti-Gear exertions at the WCAR and WSSD events, at the turn of the century, it has been a precipitous decline and narrowing of social subject for the independent left in South Africa. The working class gave way to ‘the community’, the community gave way to those without electricity and water within the community. But soon they, themselves, were not deprived enough. They lived in actual brick and mortar structures. More authentically poor still – and thus more apt to be radical and wise – were the shack-dwelling purest of the poor.
Yet even the lurid romance of mjondolism has come and gone. Surely no-one is more marginal and authentically oppressed than rural women. They don’t even live in shacks, but mud huts. The greater correctness of their politics is presaged by their even greater marginalisation. After all, rural female consciousness is untrammeled by the privilege of in situ upgrading which shack-dwellers enjoy. It is untrammeled by newspapers, formal education and employment. They are truly wretched and thus truly noble. No matter how few of them pitch up to protest, they are a hard reproach of the governments and companies gathered at the ICC. Only those actually killed by neo-liberalism, execution style, would be able to hold a placard with greater authority.
But how did the conglomeration of unions, environmentalists, shack dwellers and rural women fare in the Climate Justice March? I rely on the views of a protestor who spent a lot of time (and, he informs us, also money) organizing the event. In an email headed, ‘Never Trust A Cop”, Professor Patrick Bond says:
‘The march yesterday, though of a respectable size and exuding a really great vibe at times, certainly suffered from some curious features, including talk-left walk-right speakers who bizarrely were given a free pass; very weak turnout from
Durban communities and Cosatu; a failure to take advantage of the US consulate en route; extraordinary shenanigans at the start of the march by Zumite infiltrators (with “100% COP17” placards) from the municipality; often banal messaging; a failed ending (no concert as had been advertised) and inability to reach the beach for what we’d hoped would be a ‘going away party’ by virtue of nonsensical municipal orders; a wasted afternoon follow-up; and numerous other flaws. Luckily there was cloud cover and some water points so no cases of exhaustion on the 4km trek from Botha’s statue via City Hall to the ICC and Tech Fields.
Other critical views. Ashwin Desai remarked, “This was a march organized in part by a self-liquidating left, delivering a constituency and legitimacy to the COP17 on a silver platter.” As for the overall politics, Jos Marten of Rosa Lux concluded, “repressive tolerance”, as the establishment can sleep easy. Ashwin called it a “tame set-piece predictable show”. …’
Prof. Bond continues, ‘And aesthetically, my own complaint: having financed 250 vuvuzelas from my savings account, I was surprised that we didn’t achieve a wall of sound at the US consulate (a block west of City Hall) or the IEC.’
Reading this, it seems the march mirrored the state of the Left in South Africa: not only ‘self-liquidating’ but wholly productive of a good night’s sleep for the establishment. The fact is that the Left has become a Fifth Estate, part of the checks and balances of a functioning liberal democracy, with no impact on economic matters at all. This cohort of NGO workers, cause lawyers, moralizing bloggers, professionally ‘marginalised’ speakers of truth to power, grass-roots hustlers, sandalled vicars, identity entrepreneurs, poverty gurus and activist academics, as fulminatingly sanctimonious as they are, are a necessary side-show.
The organisations they build funnel discontent along lines the establishment can handle in between elections. As Ashwin Desai suggests, civil society specializes in tame, set-piece shows. And by tame, I include their most riotous moments. Burning libraries have all the sound and fury of insurrection but all the substance of lodging a pothole complaint with the local municipality and all the philosophy of begging.
Capitalism shifts, absorbs and displaces its contradictions. The world to which the Left belonged, no longer exists. The Left is no longer a motor for change. The battles it now fights are conservative, its strategic objectives ameliorative. It is now capitalism that runs riot and makes and remakes the world. The Left has not noticed that it has been discretely taken into service of the system it claims to abhor.
Adapting Mark Twain, politics is the subtle art by which politicians avoid a run on the markets by the rich and obtain votes from the poor on the pretext of protecting each from the other. It strikes me that leftism has taken the task of composing this pretext. Lefties portray the unruly poor to the rich as incipient revolutionaries, urging that the rich put up with the government funded interventions they propose to lessen the discontent that inequality breeds. Lefties play the same trick the other way around too. They pretend to the poor that the organisation-building, journal articles, website traffic, unenforceable court victories, prize-winning doccies and set-piece marches will, incrementally, get them more income. That’s the left, integral to the subtle art.
A retort to this is that organisation-building serves a goal beyond immediate, concrete victories of the economic kind. It is in the process of struggle that we begin to prefigure the society we want to have in future. ‘While we walk, we ask questions’. The COP marchers don’t have to be taken seriously by anyone outside themselves. It’s about what happens inside the democratic and humanist organizational spaces they create, ‘where every kind of genius may thrive’. That’s a quote. There, in radically democratic organization, they shall let trill the subaltern’s voice and let blossom worker / grassroots / indigenous subjectivities. These things are inherently dynamite to capitalism. They just have to be, to be dangerous and revolutionary.
The idea of a positively prefigurative politics is taken seriously only by those who have not, in fact, spent much time in organisation. That is to say, by those under the illusion that people, already under social and economic pressure, when gathered together and all equally allowed to vent, may readily shed their socialized skins, dismantle previous attitudes (and, in the case of the white Left, neuroses), to be reborn as new men and women. The hippies tried it with the help of LSD and good music. They failed. How will the Left of today get anywhere when all they have is coffee and Chomsky? It almost always ends, as all artificial sects do, in denunciation.
I agree with those who say that contemporary struggles within the grip of ‘the Left’ can only be ‘negatively prefigurative’, indicating the limits of present forms of struggle, what is not to be done.
What is to be done, then? If it is not while walking among a mass of the blackest, most authentically poor where the urgent political tasks of the day are formulated, then where is it? I’d say around a braaivleis fire (with soya sausages too) together with bras. The effective ingredient of this gathering is not ideology but friendship within the context of a team.
Membership of such a team is not open to all who have grievances, or need voice. That’s half the trouble with the Left, which Orwell saw so clearly. Whenever anyone says the word socialism, every gluten-intolerant, emotionally abused, negrophiliac, wannabe gonzo wannabe, academic climber, chip-on-the-shouldered, savior-complexed and sanctimonious misfit comes rallying around. That’s no basis for a crew.
Nor does a crew require, even a posteriori, a ‘correct’ Left perspective to found the required action. In fact, a Left perspective leads to COP17 marches. Reasons are a person’s own business. Whatever the driving demon of one’s bras, the basis for common action is simply a shared joy in the perversity of the goal. And an unbendingness in achieving it. And if the goal is not achieved, at least many pleasing hours wasted with people one admires.
On that inevitably personal note, we are brought to braskap, the condition for the collectives I have in mind. I have a friend active in Left organizing who gets none of it, braskap, from his comrades, not really even, I suspect, from me. The drunken gangsters and panel beaters of his pub in Clare Estate are, whatever their deficits in progressive thinking, more apt to team up with him when it comes to political action than any comrade. They share, to quote Omar Little, a code.
While in Kimberley, a good friend and comrade contacted me to say he was in Durban, we should meet up when I returned. Then my friend mentioned, casually, what else he was doing.
How shall I put it? He was hanging with the owner of the Shell garage there in Kuruman.
It was said lightly. In a certain world and in a certain light, it would be perfectly okay, a thing perfectly conducive to us still being brothers or sisters in arms. In fact, it might even be a show of strength and subtlety for both of us to be nonchalant about a loyalty so imprecise.
But, I have realized, it is not my way. I do not enter Paradise, mutually, with pricks like that.
brilliant .. yet again