Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In 2014, three-year-old Luke Tibbets was killed in a drive-by shooting in Westbury, a west Johannesburg suburb epitomising drug-and gang-infested parts of the city where anything goes, and everything goes down – from drug dealers operating openly, to corrupt cops driving by to pick up their share of the spoils.

Paul McNally, an investigative print and community radio journalist, uncovers police misdeeds such as fake arrests as well as appalling police brutality involving torture and kidnapping — activities designed not to contribute in any way to crime reduction, but to extort and expedite bribes and ransom.

Station commanders are portrayed as indolent and in-the-know, and possibly involved themselves. McNally doesn’t specifically look higher up, but the inference is there and, affirming the book’s premise, recent news bulletins report that acting police commissioner Lt-Gen Khomotso Phahlane is under investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

The Street: Exposing a World of Cops, Bribes and Drug Dealers
Paul McNally
Pan Macmillan

McNally chronicles the implications for the man on the street, specifically staking out Ontdekkers Road, running through west-central Johannesburg. From blood on the pavements to illicit liquor running into the gutters, he portrays the street’s width as hiding in plain sight rampant criminality – with tributary alleyways of degradation and danger. As McNally describes the environs through which Ontdekkers runs or borders – Westbury, saturated with unemployment and soaked in gang culture, Sophiatown and Florida – he exposes a repugnant new-normal scale of police involvement within the area’s criminal underbelly.

He juxtaposes the way local communities experience this corruption and pervasive drug dealing, with the machinations of the perpetrators. Indeed, a seedy symbiosis exists within the triumvirate of police bosses, drug dealers and police officers on the beat and on the take. Some of the cops are brazen but relatively benign, a drip-feed of small denominations to buy takeaway food being enough to make them disappear until the following week.

Others have scaled-up motives and display enmity towards law-breakers and law-abiding folk alike as they implement schemes to leverage serious-money shakedowns.

Some residents and business owners, like McNally’s protagonist Raymond, a car-sound fitment shop proprietor, have a complex connection to Ontdekkers, which binds them to the borough and gears them into action. Raymond sees it all and documents or films incidents of police officers arriving opposite his premises to collect.

Over the course of the book’s two-year analysis Raymond swings from mild optimism in believing he can assist the good cops, to despair that his willingness to share evidence within the SAPS simply has no effect.

He is pushed occasionally into vigilantism, becoming morally corroded by the constant sleaze spawned by his drug-dealing neighbours.

McNally also unveils the neighbourhood community policing forums and reservists. On the surface these are normal, stable people. But he scratches beneath, finding frightened individuals and flawed personalities such as Wendy, scarred by the murder of her policeman husband and the dysfunction of her addict son. She brings embittered baggage to her job as a reservist, compromising her ability to manage confrontation with suspected criminals and her colleagues. She is nearing a breakdown — personifying SAPS as an institution.

McNally posits that the policing model itself as the problem. SAPS have arrest targets for crime categories; The Street provides evidence that this paradoxically disincentivises proactive policing. Instead, the police integrate and participate within a vicious loop of criminality, to create the appearance of success. Crime-reduction is the ostensible agenda, but to feed the numbers machine, it is easier and makes more of a statistical impression to bust drug users rather than dealers or syndicate heads. Real policing is just a phantom. Is this endemic? McNally relates corroborative stories of blatant fissures within the surrounding police precincts of Sophiatown and Florida, and of untouchables such as a repugnant police officer, Lerato, who, surely, only remains in the force because the drug lords have wormed their product into the streets and their influence into all levels of the security establishment.

There are some upstanding police officers.

McNally befriends a Lt Khaba, who chooses to live in a squalid police-barrack room because he fears for his life, having refused to participate in covering up heinous police activity at his previous posting. Khaba constantly bleaches his room — a manifestly physical need to keep clean. Khaba promises to work with Raymond in exposing corrupt colleagues, but he is thwarted at every turn. He is a good cop at heart, but the demons of his past make him an ineffectual one.

Journalistic objectivity cuts no mustard when self-preservation is paramount, and McNally’s voice morphs to embrace clearer understanding of the moral dilemmas of the twilight zone

Another recent book, Andrew Brown’s Good Cop, Bad Cop, provides correlative testimony of a police force on the brink: underpaid, undertrained, underresourced and critically lacking in leadership. Whereas Brown — in the lion’s den, immersed as a cop — gives the inside perspective, McNally observes from the sidelines, witnessing the conflict and the equilibrium between the players and the dangerous dance of those caught as pawns in a bigger game. But, although he has embedded himself within a parallel reality of saturated day-time angst on Ontdekkers Road, his voice is sometimes too passive and distant.

Only late in the book does it strike McNally that he is affected, and feasibly in harm’s way. The police have noticed him in Raymond’s workshop; they may suspect he is shining a light on their web. He gets pulled over at a roadblock, ironically but unsurprisingly by drunk cops seeking a power thrill. This shocks him into a realisation that trauma could emanate from an unexpected quarter.

Journalistic objectivity cuts no mustard when self-preservation is paramount, and McNally’s voice morphs to embrace clearer understanding of the moral dilemmas of the twilight zone in which Ontdekkers Road business people and residents of the surrounding neighbourhoods, are trapped.

Citizens are often in more danger from erratic — or malevolent — police than dealers.

They face a Hobson’s choice between turning a blind eye to the blatant corruption, thus securing some degree of protection, or reporting and protesting — but then risk receiving no police support at all when it may most be needed.

Peril is pervasive and mistrust is rife. Just as the police perform a hollow service, so residents display a shallow, reluctant co-operation. "Are we going to be safe today or are we not going to be safe?" asked Westbury community leader Shahiem Ismael — a scornful blast, and a plea, directed at the Sophiatown police.

Sickening in parts, The Street is an appeal for sanity — and the sanitisation of the police — in tackling crime. But it offers little optimism for improvement, as Johannesburg is portrayed as a city of wolves, a dangerous morass of corruption and decay with Ontdekkers Road as its crumbling skeleton.

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