BOOK REVIEW: Good Cop, Bad Cop: Confessions of a Reluctant Policeman
DESPITE its police-blue cover complete with a badge, Good Cop, Bad Cop is not a history of the South African Police Service (SAPS) but a searing personal account of illustrious author Andrew Brown’s intimate relationship with the men in blue.
They know the contours of his body for they beat it, suffocated it, half-drowned it and mock-assassinated Brown when he was an 18-year-old student activist in the late 1980s.
Now he’s an advocate in Cape Town who has spent nearly 20 years as a police reservist sergeant on the beat at nights and on weekends in some of the Cape Peninsula’s worst townships. That includes Nyanga, which Brown says "is the murder capital of the world. About 300 people are killed there annually."
His role swap from angry protester against the apartheid police to a cop who increasingly has to deal with angry communities protesting about a lack of basic amenities sometimes confuses him. "It’s not as if I can stand there in good conscience and say, ‘you are wrong’ when they don’t have houses, water or enough police officers to ensure their safety," he explains.
The central theme of his book, "in a country that’s increasingly lacking in service delivery, is the way it has been made the police’s job to keep communities quiet", he says. He’s not happy with the situation, arguing that when townships have no water, "don’t send in the police, send in engineers. Fix the problem".
At Bushbuckridge near Kruger National Park, where Brown had been on holiday with his wife and three children, they came across a protest. Empty water pipes had been used to create a road blockade.
Police were ranged on one side watching an enraged female community leader lashing the ground with a sjambok. Brown walked past the astonished men in blue to the protesters. He chatted to their leader, who explained the circumstances.
"In a situation like that I understand both the protestors — because I’ve been one — and the cops, because I am one," he says. The police captain on the scene told him, "I’m issued with a rifle, not a spade."
A NEW study published by the University of Johannesburg shows that there are, on average, 14 police-recorded protests a day in SA.
"So the cops, in addition to everything else, have to deal with them too. Most interestingly, 80% of the protests are peaceful," Brown says.
His experiences in the SAPS have left him "pretty much without fear". That was tested one night in his Mowbray home. Brown had, unusually, placed his gun near his bed and was awakened by the sound of his wife’s car door being locked. But she was beside him. Brown set off naked down the corridor, Glock in hand, when a strange sound in his study made him turn and switch on the light. A man with a screwdriver, high on tik, threatened the naked sergeant. Both screamed. Brown aimed his gun while his wife called the Mowbray police station. They arrived in droves and Brown’s captain berated him for not firing his weapon as he was all that stood between the armed intruder and his family.
"I don’t agree with him, but it is chilling to hear that," Brown observes.
He describes the incident in the rich authorial style that won him the country’s premier fiction award in 2006 for Coldsleep Lullaby.
Good Cop, Bad Cop follows his first, fairly light-hearted nonfiction book, also about policemen, Street Blues. His latest work is far more serious, albeit leavened with amusing anecdotes.
His descriptions of the most densely populated township in SA, Masiphumelele near Kommetjie, are shocking, capturing its poverty and degradation.
Brown was on patrol one day with a fat fellow policeman who had to turn sideways to squeeze between the alleys of the settlement. He noticed a mother bathing a baby and met a young woman with a private school accent outside her squalid shack.
A DAY later he was woken with the news that 1,000 shacks had been destroyed by fire and 4,000 people in Masiphumelele were homeless. He raced to the scene to find — nothing. The mother and baby were gone, so too the intriguing young woman.
Stunned, he was wandering through the devastation when he heard a camera click and a newspaper photographer asked for his name. Brown began to cry, the camera was lowered, and the reservist was allowed to weep, enveloped in a hug.
In one of his most revealing chapters he describes leaving home for duty, his children studying and his wife reading, as he strapped on an extremely heavy bulletproof vest fitted with anti-AK47 ceramic plates.
"Don’t get shot dad," said his eldest son. Brown thinks of the hundreds of policemen and women, hugging their children and ruffling their hair as they step out into the night.
When democracy arrived in 1994, Brown wanted to make a contribution to the new SA and became a Table Mountain volunteer firefighter.
Then in 1998, "one of my ‘80s comrades told me the police were struggling to integrate old Afrikaans policemen with young black constables to transform it into a democratic police force," he says.
It became his focus. He describes the subsequent melding as "an incredible success, given what could have been".
One of his most chilling moments was dealing with University of Cape Town student protests, one involving his daughter. "They had no idea they were in danger of being shot and that the police on the ground managed to diffuse the situation," he says.
The reason his second book about cops is harder hitting than Street Blues is, "Marikana changed everything. It changed the way we see the police and the way they see themselves." He worries that another shooting like Marikana may happen again.
The author, who was prepared to die for the ANC back in the day, is angry about the state of the nation today. "My ANC has failed. It is scary to acknowledge it. For the first time, in our recent elections, I didn’t vote for them. It hurts."
He is scathing in his assessment of the government. "We are not here to protect it from the voices of the people. We are not paid to guard the troughs of the swine."
He wants the police to pack away their guns, leave their rifles behind, "and be a police service again".
Brown’s book — sometimes hilarious, often tragic, always evocatively penned — will make you think twice about slagging off the men in blue.