- Transforming the Robocops: changing police in South Africa
One indicator of the depth and extent of transformation in South Africa could be our capacity to engage in peaceful mass action in support of political demands. Despite this being a legal right of the post-apartheid social order, it is a capacity which has not yet been realised. Mass action is still frequently marked by violence, not only by frustrated protestors but also by the police, in ways that are reminiscent of the brutality of the apartheid era. Does this mean that the South African Police Service (SAPS) has not undergone fundamental organisational change? This is the central question posed by sociologist Monique Marks in her study, Transforming the Robocops. To what extent are the police still mindless, brutal, and vicious; still automatons, what she terms 'robocop functionaries with knee-jerk reactions and iron fists' (2005:243).
She answers the question through an ethnographic exploration of a single unit of the SAPS, the Durban Public Order Police unit (POP). In a clearly argued account Marks demonstrates that the unit of 2001 was dramatically different from what it had been in its apartheid embodiments, the Riot Unit and the Internal Stability Division. The unit was far more representative, at least in terms of race (though not gender); there was a commitment to peaceful 'crowd management' as well as community-oriented policing so that police violence during protests and demonstrations had lessened and social relations and styles were less militarised. She argues that these changes resulted from changes in 'the field' or the structural conditions of policing. But at a cultural level, the level of values and norms embodied in [End Page 134] police culture, the change has been uneven. Marks reports that most POP members continued to regard crowd participants as irrational and provocative. For white members particularly, African townships remained 'barbarous territory' where human rights were not respected and there were times when 'members of the unit fell back on old practices: dealing out beatings on mere suspicion of criminal intent, and wrecking property in forcefully entered homes' (2005:245).
Marks herself witnessed some of these abuses and her account of how she immersed herself in the Durban POP unit during a four-year period from 1996-2001 is extremely readable. She engaged directly with POP members, accompanying them on a variety of operations including an all-night shift in KwaMashu when she was shown how to use an Uzi machine gun. On this occasion she 'felt morally compromised in knowing that many of the responses of the platoon were brutal and completely disregarded the human rights framework that was supposed to guide police behaviour' (2005:102). There are very honest and vivid extracts from a research diary in which she recorded her observations, conversations and reflections. Mark's warm personality and open, friendly non-judgemental approach clearly helped her to gain access and the trust of her informants. Access was not difficult, probably because Marks could draw on a personal history, but 'there was a constant need to renegotiate it and considerable effort and time had to be devoted to maintaining positive and collaborative working relationships at all levels' (2005:94). Overall her research demanded high levels of both courage, energy, empathy and the sound judgement involved in 'playing a number of different roles simultaneously - researcher, friend, adviser, expert' (2005:103).
The rich insights obtained from participant observation are supported with material drawn from 50 more formal interviews and a survey Marks conducted with Durban POP members in 1999. This survey produced significant material such as the fact that three quarters of the officers in the unit had been in public order policing for more than five years. As Marks writes, 'This meant that for the great majority of members their training had been in the old tactics of counter-insurgency and riot control and they were socialised into a sub-culture where excessive force and disregard of basic freedoms were considered normal and legitimate' (2005:70). While she identifies 'a distinct occupational ethos', our understanding of these actors...