Maj-Gen Jeremy Vearey, the scourge of Western Cape gangsters, has none of the gun-toting machismo I expected. Instead, he is a reflective and scholarly man who arrives at our interview armed only with a battered copy of one of George Bernard Shaw’s lesser known works, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God.
He has just launched his memoir, Jeremy vannie Elsies, in which he chronicles his evolution from a childhood shaped by a powerful matriarchy to the policeman-poet sitting in a modest Mowbray coffee shop on a sunny winter’s morning.
He laughs at the suggestion of machismo: "My two grandmothers and my mother were tougher than any macho man!"
From his mother he learnt about Marxism and the evils of patriarchy. She was a shop steward in the Garment Workers’ Union who led strikes for better wages and equal pay with male workers.
"Women were only allowed to be seamstresses. The men were cutters and pattern makers and they were paid more," Vearey explains. "It was a struggle against patriarchy, both at home and at work."
Now deputy commissioner for crime detection in the Western Cape, Vearey describes himself as a "social construct" — the man he is now shaped over the years by his interactions with people and places and political developments.
A key period in his construction was the 1980 schools boycott when, with the help of progressive teachers, black pupils devised their own curriculum in protest at the inferior education dished out to them by a racist government.
This brought the transformative discovery of a literary canon that opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. For the first time, Vearey was exposed to writers who spoke to his own experience.
"We learnt you could construct a life through literature, and the lives of ordinary people provided just as rich a narrative as that of kings," he says.
He read Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Peter Abrahams and Jimmy la Guma. Through the writing of Steve Biko he discovered black consciousness.
The next step was asserting ownership over his home language, Afrikaans. That Jeremy vannie Elsies is written in Afrikaans is, he says, a political act. "It is another way I understand literature: We have a duty to convey marginalised voices. And to challenge convention and homogeneity," he declares.
"The notion of one Afrikaans is a myth. Afrikaans is an organic, dynamic language. People wrote texts in Kaaps long before Afrikaans became a codified language. I wanted to show that there is an Afrikaans that shaped liberation. It was the language in which we articulated our revolutionary ideals and communicated our activism."
This included building on — and, if necessary, subverting — the teaching of iconic white Afrikaans writers.
Vearey is an admirer of the #FeesMustFall movement — though stressing that he doesn’t necessarily support the tactics. He cites NP van Wyk Louw’s 1940s injunction that the youth have an obligation to act to shape their own future.
"This is what #FeesMustFall did. Youth stepped forward to define how they wanted to be educated. They tackled the fundamental problem of how to pay for their education. They demanded to be part of reconstructing the future, their future," he says.
Vearey’s building blocks for his future included joining Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1983, followed by imprisonment on Robben Island. On his release in 1990 he was deployed to the ANC’s intelligence services.
He recounts in his book how, while the ANC and the National Party were conducting formal negotiations towards a peace agreement at Codesa, their intelligence services continued to fight a covert war.
"We were still trying to neutralise each other," he muses. "We had agents in their ranks feeding them misinformation to misdirect them."
Meanwhile, elements in the apartheid security police were using gangsters to undermine the ANC ahead of the 1994 elections. "To counter that, we had to confront gangs directly," Vearey says. He writes how they took a couple of ANC cabinet ministers, including Steve Tshwete, to "talk" to Rashied Staggie at the Hard Livings’s headquarters, Die Hok, in Manenberg.
Armed with AK-47s, the ANC forces approached Die Hok as if it were an enemy installation. "With our weapons trained on a clearly shocked Staggie and his mates, we immediately had the upper hand.
"Minister Tshwete entered the premises and began speaking. It was a short and potent message. The blood will flow here if any ANC activist is harassed. Umkhonto we Sizwe is bigger and better armed than any gang in the land."
More than 20 years later, Vearey is still confronting gangsters. "Policing and intelligence work is the next best thing to living the life of an activist where I could serve the broader community," he says.
"What I like about policing is that it makes a contribution to the freedoms people have won and have a right to — like freedom of movement and freedom of association — that are denied to them by criminals in the ghettoes and elsewhere. "It is a nice broad platform from which to live out my ideals."