- The Dirty Work of Democracy: a year on the streets with the SAPS
It almost suffices to say that this book does for operational policing in the South African Police Service (SAPS) what Jonny Steinberg's Midlands (2002) and The Number (2004) have done for the racialised politics of rural homicide and gangsterism in South Africa's prisons. As none other than Steinberg writes on its front cover, The Dirty Work of Democracy is 'one of those rare books that transcends its subject matter and tells us something about the state of our country's soul'. But to leave the discussion at that would be to do Altbeker and his work an unpardonable injustice. A book of this quality on so important a subject deserves more than a one line encomium. Altbeker is no shrinking violet when it comes to expressing an opinion and - while what he has to say is both challenging and eminently sensible - there are also some more questionable judgements. Enthralling as it is then, is this book more than a rattling good read? Does it really have important things to tell us all - the specialist as well as the general reader - not just about the work of the SAPS, but about the contemporary condition of South Africa too?
The structure of the book is straightforward. Altbeker begins with a short preface in which he explains that it is based on time he spent observing police officers going about their duties at eleven police stations across South Africa in 2003. He also explains very briefly why and how he has taken steps to disguise the identities of most but not all of his informants (a task undertaken at greater length in a note at the end of the book). He then follows in what he wryly notes is a long established tradition among students of [End Page 135] operational police work in paying tribute to the 'courage, integrity and determination' of the officers he observed (2005:xiii). Having expressed such sentiments 'as a kind of fee paid to purchase the moral space to criticise some - but not all - of the people' he describes, Altbeker adds that police officers are not 'superheroes' but fallible human beings, 'ignorant, lazy, brutal, and even corrupt' (xviii). Yet, he concludes, they 'don't have to be supermen [sic] to do good. All they have to do is turn up for work' (xiv). It is this frank admiration for ordinary people routinely coping with extraordinary events, and an underlying conviction that even rather poor policing is almost certainly better than none that informs the rest of the book.
With these preliminaries out of the way, the first two chapters take us to Galeshewe in the Northern Cape and establish a pattern that is maintained more or less throughout the rest of the book. In chapter 1 we are introduced not only to the township, its residents and the 'cops' responsible for policing it, but also to what Altbeker describes in his concluding author's note as his 'theoretical framework' for understanding policing: the work of Egon Bittner and Carl Klockars and the notion that what is distinctive about the police is not the goals that they claim to pursue - crime-fighting, order maintenance and so on - but the means that they employ in dealing with a wider set of 'something-ought-not-to-be-happening-and-about-which-something-ought-to-be-done-now' situations (Bittner 1974) - the use of coercive force (4 and 269). In doing so, in turning up 'after the milk has been spilt and the shit has hit the fan', Altbeker argues that the SAPS is responsible for doing the dirty work of the 'newly democratic South Africa' in much the same way as George Orwell had seen and done 'the dirty work of Empire at close quarters' during his period of service as a police officer in Burma in the 1920s (7).
In the next chapter the history, sights, sounds and smells of Galeshewe are brought to life, the characters of...