Debut effort: Simone Haysom’s first book, a true-crime story, sketches her characters with insight Picture: SUPPLIED
Debut effort: Simone Haysom’s first book, a true-crime story, sketches her characters with insight Picture: SUPPLIED

The 2017/2018 crime statistics recently released show that of the 10 police stations with the highest murder rates in the country, seven are in the Western Cape. All serve densely packed communities in Cape Town. Mfuleni, No 10 on the list with 157 murders, is where much of the action of Simone Haysom’s "true-crime story" is set.

Her account of the necklacing of young miscreant Rowan du Preez in 2012, and the subsequent investigation and trial, is a disturbing glimpse into the convoluted working of the justice system. It is a tale of intertwined legal processes. Du Preez’s murder and trial took place as the Khayelitsha commission of inquiry probed the state of policing in the area.

One of the four people accused of his horrible death was Angy Peter, an activist who had collected testimonies from community members to present at the inquiry. She had also, before the murder, accused a crime intelligence official of being a fence.

The state’s case leaned heavily on the words supposedly spoken by Du Preez as he died: three police officers testified that he told them that Peter and her husband Isaac Mbadu set him alight on Blueberry Hill. The defence leaned towards conspiracy, a stitch-up. Was Peter victim or villain? As Michela Wrong writes on the cover, truth is a shifting, teasing thing. What is gripping about Haysom’s book is that it asks "whether police procedure and a courtroom are equipped to establish it".

The answer to that question may be no. The damning quality of police work Haysom documents, the reams of inconsistencies, clashing eyewitness accounts and an overall sense of entropy batter at the mere idea of establishing "facts". Even the victim’s name fluctuates: some called him Roy, some Rowan. The tussle for a dominant truth becomes something ugly.

At the Open Book Festival this month, Haysom spoke of how — if there was a conspiracy against Peter — she was "frightened" by the implications. It would indicate police accountability was completely broken.

As the commission of inquiry strand of the book makes clear, policing the Cape Flats townships is beset with difficulty, compounded by institutional failure from broken-down police vans to nobody answering phones at stations.

Caseloads were unimaginable; the hapless (and hopeless) investigating officer in Du Preez’s murder was working on 141 "serious cases"; he’d received no training in detection methods in his first 10 years on the job.

Haysom notes how reluctant the trial judge was to countenance a possibility of the justice system being lacking. That "the police were generally corrupt, an idea so widely accepted on the streets that it was effectively banal, was one that [the judge] vehemently rejected", she writes. Similarly, the commission of inquiry’s findings, which made recommendations for improvement, were summarily rejected by the national police commissioner at the time.

As Haysom writes, the underlying issue is not "just that the problems are big, but the ways to address the problems are blocked at every turn". And if justice systems are indeed broken at every level, unaccountable police "aren’t just incompetent, they are also predatory".

Haysom is an analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime and this is her first book. Despite the ambitious ambit, her writing is crisp and the characters sketched with insight.

Wit lights up the dense legal details, as in this description of police testifying at the inquiry: "The sincerity of their defences, the degree to which you believed they were overwhelmed men doing their best or defeated men whiling away the days to retirement, varied from testimony to testimony.

"Yet as you noticed consistent turns of phrase and habits of thought, let alone the ubiquity of moustaches, they seemed increasingly of a piece. Perhaps … the police were the country’s greatest nonracial success: police culture was so overriding, so undeniably, even dangerously unifying."

Haysom was initially wary of writing about the sharp-tongued, volatile Peter’s case. The "pull to exonerate ‘the good guys’ would be strong" and her own bias and a liking for "bold and ‘difficult’ women" might warp her view. However, she writes, she would later almost have been relieved to know that Peter was guilty, if only to disprove the idea of a malevolent police force.

Despite the maelstrom of conflicting testimony and unknowable truths, The Last Words succeeds on an important level.

It shows that individual stories — the experiences of average people — can illuminate the effects and failures of entire state systems. Whether citizens can hold authorities accountable is the next question. 

Correction: September 18 2018

An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Jonathan Ball as the author of this article. The author is in fact Janine Stephen.