In a show of polished concern at the latest crime statistics, the politicians wrung their hands and the commissioners mouthed euphemisms. Anti-apartheid struggle veteran, author and police reservist Andrew Brown must have grimaced.
The numbers are horrible, but Brown’s book Good Cop, Bad Cop amplifies the harrowing reality behind the data, underscoring what ordinary South Africans know: we live in a riven society, racked with violent crime — and our police force cannot cope.
Brown portrays SA’s fraught fabric vividly in chapters such as "Township Blues". He was one of three — just three — policemen sent to start a police "service" in the dangerous Cape township of Masiphumelele, after sustained violent protests. He courageously commences solitary foot patrols, and his poignant prose captures township life: the hardship, heartbreak, and resilience of this tightly packed humanity with whom he forms a mutual bond of respect in spite of the colour of his skin — and uniform.
He is also forthright in his anguish at the Marikana massacre, with greater understanding of the role of the police than the police commissioner, surely, when she said operations at Marikana represented "the best of responsible policing."
Brown’s central point is that the fissures within government — including the security institution puppeteers, as illustrated by a certain investigative unit swooping upon our finance minister — make the police an instrument in an immoral, unwinnable war against the populace. In writing about this he is, traitorously, a "bad cop."
Evidently, however, he is only a poor policeman because he is not bad enough. When tik-heads break into his home he cannot bring himself to shoot. His past — the country’s past — shrouds him in an immobilising guilt in which he sympathises with the adolescent criminal’s deprivations. He is frozen into inertia, and will only shoot — maybe — "next time".
The book’s flaw is a lack of clarity surrounding Brown’s Struggle history. The narration opens with him in detention under apartheid laws, but relocates too vaguely to him patrolling the townships. With his haunted past and an ongoing, restive torment, veering 180° to enter the domain of his previous enemy is curious.
Whatever the backstory, Brown has unfinished business with his personal demons, and if his motive in writing this book is to try to slake their thirst, he is also offering a mirror to the nation: only by moving towards reconciliation and greater social cohesion can we banish them.
Sadly, he is right in pointing out that this isn’t, ultimately, a policing issue. The police service is a microcosm of society, so most of the personnel come across as a determined bunch within an erratic, semi-dysfunctional organisation which sometimes succeeds in its duties, but often plugs jagged holes of corruption, incompetence, or bureaucratic bungling — until the leaks reappear.
Within this dystopian reality, Good Cop, Bad Cop offers no undercurrent of hope. It’s ultimately a depressing read, revealing that the police force must bridge a monumental trust deficit before the broader population may view the men and women in blue, collectively, as "good cops".
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Confessions of a Reluctant Policeman
Zebra Press/Penguin Random House SA