OPINION: Nathaniel Julies, gangsterism & SA's policing problem


The recent death of Nathaniel Julies, allegedly at the hands of the South African Police Service (SAPS) officers in Eldorado Park, raises two issues that are not new: excessive force by SAPS members; and the policing of gangs in affected communities.

The Julies case is not an isolated incident, and should be understood in relation to the many other similar cases that have occurred in affected communities in South Africa. The Cape Flats in the Western Cape, and the northern areas of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, are two regions where the intersection between excessive force by police and gang violence plays itself out, often with tragic consequences.

There are several lessons to heed from the Julies case. These are the same lessons that we will observe elsewhere where gang violence and how to police it are primary issues.

Lesson 1: Gangs are not only a law enforcement matter
First, the factors that give rise to gang violence are not only a crime or law enforcement matter. There is a much larger context to gangsterism that encompasses historical, economic and social factors. If one looks at gangsterism globally, it is a phenomenon that has a historical context. In the US, for example, gangs can be traced back to as early as the late 18th century. Over time, they not only continued, but adapted and thrived in response to changing political, economic and social conditions. As a result, in the modern context, gangs not only still exist, but they now have transnational linkages and formations, making them a global challenge, rather than restricted to a particular geographical location.

In South Africa, the history of gangs is closely intertwined with the history of the country. The fact that gangs are typically found in some historically marginalised coloured and black townships suggests that they are very much a part of the historical, social, political and economic processes that have given rise to these urban phenomena, and sustain them. From colonial times and into the present, gangs continue to adapt and transform in response to the social, political and economic changes of South African society. While they obviously represent a law enforcement challenge, it is necessary to acknowledge that gangs are a product of historical and contemporary dynamics impacting the communities in which they exist.

Lesson 2: Perceptions of SAPS impact significantly on resolving crime-related issues in marginalised communities
Second, the policing of gang violence in particular, and crime in general, in marginalised communities is itself complex, given both the historical perception of police in these communities, and the current challenges facing the police service. Most South Africans would be aware of the role of the police during colonialism and apartheid, as the enforcement arm of oppressive and suppressive policies and legislation. From 1994, the ANC led government embarked on a deliberate policy to transform the South African Police (SAP) to bring it in line with the new democratic dispensation and principles. A new police service was needed for a “new” South Africa.

However, despite the efforts to transform the service, it was far more difficult to transform the public’s perceptions of the police. The much publicised Marikana massacre on 16 August 2012 was a stark and tragic reminder that the perception of the police as a brutal instrument of suppression, which is still very fresh in the minds of South Africans. This was evident in the comparisons made between the Marikana incident, and well known historical examples of excessive force by the police, such as the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and the Soweto uprising of 1976.

Marginalised communities are still, for the most part, distrustful of the police, and are not convinced by the SAPS’s transformation efforts. The reaction to the Julies incident makes that clear. On the Cape Flats, this historical distrust even culminated in the emergence of a community-based vigilante movement, PAGAD, that served as an alternative policing structure to the “legitimate” law enforcement authorities. Historical and contemporary responses to crime and violence in marginalised communities suggest that perceptions of the police as brutal enforcers still persist, and that residents will rather seek alternative ways of dealing with crime within their communities than deal with the police. Other issues such as crime, corruption, mismanagement and the alleged co-operation between SAPS members and criminals and gang leaders do little to assuage the concerns of community members.

Lesson 3: Politicising crime and gangsterism does not solve the problem, but can potentially worsen it
Third, the politicisation of policing, crime and gang violence negatively impacts on the relationship between affected communities, law enforcement authorities and the relevant political officials. This is an ongoing problem in gang-affected communities. In highly politically contested areas, such as in Nelson Mandela Bay, and Cape Town, gangsterism and crime have been used as a political football. One example to illustrate this is the call for the deployment of the army to help curb gangsterism. In both Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, this issue has been a political one between the dominant political formations in these areas. However, despite this, gang violence has continued.

Lesson 4: Meaningful cooperation between police and communities are critical to a solution
Fourth, sustainable solutions to the crime and gangsterism challenge in communities will never be found without the due co-operation between both the communities and police. For as long as acts on either side create animosity between both groups, violence and the related consequences of it will unfortunately continue.

Theodore Petrus is an associate professor in anthropology at the University of the Free State, and is also an academic and business coach. He specialises in social research on gangs and gang-related crimes in the Eastern Cape.