Of gangsters, corrupt police and politicians

Books on corruption in the state must offer more empirical evidence, explanations and solutions. Jacques Pauw’s book fails in this regard, writes WESLEY SEALE

Gangsters, corrupt police and wayward politicians. This triad of actors seem to fascinate South Africans as any book with these characters in the title is bound to get unwarranted attention. Our history as a country is shrouded with underworld dealings and this is probably the reason why South Africans, who can hardly be described as a reading nation, rush to buy any book that spells the gory details of the underworld.

While our security ministers have vowed to tackle these links, the innuendo and gossip continue. Not to suggest that the links do not exist but it is very difficult to dispel gossip if the evidence is not produced to substantiate these allegations.

‘Grass-eaters’, ‘meat-eaters’ and ‘birds’ is how a New York Police Department officer described his colleagues’ propensity for corruption when testifying at the Knapp Commission which investigated corruption in the NYPD in 1972.

Grass-eaters did not explicitly look for kickbacks or bribes when executing their duties but rather they accepted these as part of their job. They accepted random offers of a burger, a cup of coffee, a braai, gift or a discount here and there.

Meat-eaters were more proactive. They were on the look-out for an ‘arrangement’, to ‘organise’. They would deal with drug dealers, compromise cases and even steal dockets. Meat-eaters would aggressively pursue accused persons for the purposes of extortion or protection in exchange for rewards.

Birds, on the other hand, flew while looking down on their colleagues. They would just fly and were therefore morally way above their peers while not participating in the wayward activities of their peers. They kept their hands clean and unsullied.

The three types of police officers are explored in Liza Grobler’s book, ‘Crossing the Lines: When Cops become Criminals’. Grobler, described as an authority on criminality in the police service, has experience working for the Department of Correctional Services, performing criminological risk assessments on potential parolees.

What is interesting about the book is that it is a scientific study of the blurry lines between the police and criminals. As the three types of police officers suggest, Grobler notes that this phenomenon of police connections with the underworld is not limited to South Africa but rather that this is an international trend. Everywhere in the world, there is this thin line between the police and gangsters.

Francis Fukuyama in his book ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ examines the relations between institutions and political development. Institutions are to be understood as the rules of the game. Unwritten and written, they may comprise of laws, mores or values. A good institution is judged by its longevity rather than by whether it is morally acceptable or not. In other words, institutions such as racism and patriarchy, albeit now unwritten and informal, continue to persist and therefore as institutions, because of their longevity, are judged well.

Robert Putnam, Fukuyama’s fellow American political scientist links the idea of institutions to that of game theory. He suggests that through game theory one can understand how institutions operate, manifest and perpetuate. It is like any game. If one cooperates with the rules of the game, one is advantaged and a continuous repetition of the rules counts in one’s favour.

Those players who do not play by the rules are penalised while the more limited the number of players the more intense the game. Information about one’s opponent is always welcome, especially on their past patterns of behaviour when playing the game.

Institutions and game theory become useful when trying to understand the triad of criminals, corrupt police and polluted politicians, especially in South Africa. The institution of gangs, in particular, is not one that is unique to the Zuma administration and therefore it is not helpful to suggest that this triad only existed in this administration. Actors or players simply fill vacuums created by a game that already exists.

In order, therefore, to interrupt the game or end it, one has to understand the game, its rules and the institutions involved. Who are the players? What are the rules? Who makes the rules? What happens when players don’t play by the rules of gangs? What is the punishment? What is the information of individual gang players in the game of gangsterism?

Books like the one written by Grobler, on the relationship between the police, the underworld and politicians are helpful not because they concentrate on a particular case or person but because it situates particular cases within a phenomenon that exists in South Africa. As a result, once the phenomenon is understood and deconstructed, only then can we move beyond the space of point scoring and sensationalism.

The tragedy of books such as Jacques Pauw’s one is that it tries to separate the dealings of the underworld at one level and the operations of gangs on the level that communities experience it on a daily basis. Writers such as Pauw are not concerned about gangsters ruling the roost in places such as the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape or Gauteng rather what they are interested in is simply making a quick buck and paying scant attention to the deep-seated challenges that gangsterism poses for the fight against crime and corruption in South Africa.

In her book, Liza Grobler suggests, among others, stringent recruitment for policemen and women. She suggests that only the best must be selected to serve in the service and recruits must be thoroughly vetted. Testimonials should be requested from their schools and their family and friends must be randomly interviewed to provide character assessments. Grobler also suggests that the input of the community must be sought; for if it is the community the police officer is going to serve then the community must provide testimony on his or her character.

Grobler goes on to make further suggestions on training, management, professionalism, how to handle grievances against the police, discipline, promotions, investigations, oversight and general interventions. Her study is, therefore, a thorough one which has as its aim the improvement of the police service.

The advice is therefore straightforward to South Africans: if you want real solutions to our country’s problems start reading real books and not tabloid tales which masquerade as being a worthwhile read.

Seale teaches politics at Rhodes University and is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University

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