It was a hot Friday morning in Cape Town, South Africa, late 2012. The sun was nearing its zenith, signalling that the two hour operation would soon be over. Our convoy of vehicles came to a standstill outside the corrugated iron structure painted in bright pink and turquoise. The palettes of blues, blacks and beiges that form the various uniforms of the South African Police Service (SAPS), Cape Town Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Law Enforcement spilled into the unpaved street. Twelve pairs of black boots mixed with the brown dust as the officials streamed through and around the shack structure, moving quickly in order to circumvent any attempts to hide stock. They rushed past the elderly man crouched over a plastic basin, washing the heat from his skin, past three generations of women scrubbing grime from soaking clothes, ignoring their subdued questions and objections. They needed to locate the alcohol before it could be moved.
To any of us for whom this was a first visit there was no doubt that this was a shebeen, an illegal alcohol outlet. The large informal structure was complete with pool tables, ash trays, a bar counter and about twenty beer crates. Like other comparable shebeens in the area, the sales counter was completely barred; forming a cage to protect the bar staff, cash and alcohol (all currently absent) from would be robbers, thieves and short-tempered patrons. This and a crate-sized lockable flap in the metal wall of the bar used to re-stock it without having to open a space through which a body can pass, stood as reminders that the business of alcohol in these parts is one beset with danger.
But while locks and bars might provide security against those who seek to break the law, they serve to attract those who enforce it. And so it was that when within seconds it was established that the beer crates and bar area were empty and there were no other obvious stores of alcohol on the premises, officials went about searching the structures immediately adjacent to it.
With the area secured, the four residents were asked to stand next to their wash basins while they were searched. An official asked the women for the key to a locked shack next to the main structure. One of them responded that it was with her husband, that they didn’t have it. The official was agitated, he wanted to get into the shack. Another official approached with a spanner in hand, proactively retrieved from one of the vehicles in our convoy. Against the rising objections of the four residents the lock was broken and the door opened to reveal hundreds of litres of alcohol. The residents began to shout.
The rest was easy for the state and city officials. The empty crates were brought to the storage shack, filled with bottles of spirits, cider and beer, and carried to the police cars, one after the other. The elderly man and woman spat venom at the police, waving their arms and pointing their fingers at the sky. They cursed the police officials’ mothers and told them they would answer to god for what they were doing. After translating for me, a constable laden with a heavy crate of beer turned to me and with a smile and said, ‘But we will be dead by then.’
The teenager emerged with a camera-enabled cell phone. She started snapping photographs of the officials and the alcohol in the back of the large police bakkie.[i] One police official raised his thumbs and posed for a picture with an exaggerated grin, turning to a colleague seconds later and saying, ‘You know I wish they complained like this when their children are murdered. But they don’t. They are cowards.’
Someone needed to be arrested in relation to this seizure. The elderly man and women were left to shout in the dust. The teenager was too young. So with a tight grip on the back of her neck and another on her arm a police official pushed the middle-aged woman into the back of one of the vans. ‘That’s what happens when you resist,’ said the constable to me.
Suddenly there was a sense of urgency, an unspoken inference that we were in danger and needed to vacate the area immediately. With the officials back in their vehicles the convoy began making its slow and bumpy retreat down the unpaved road. My vehicle was the last in the convoy. I hung off the side together with a constable who wanted to keep an eye on the alcohol in the back of our bakkie. A man in his early 40s chased us. He had not been there before. He had tears in his eyes. He was shouting, pleading. He threw himself onto the back of the bakkie, collapsing onto the alcohol. The teenager pulled him off. And that’s where we left them, crying in the dust.
In late 2012 I spent three months shadowing detectives and patrol officials in the Nyanga precinct of Cape Town as part of my doctoral research. Nyanga’s police record some of the highest crime figures in the country. In the year I conducted my fieldwork, 233 murders were reported at the station, 110 for every 100 000 residents, so that in recent years it has been called South Africa's 'murder capital'. Government and police leadership have positioned alcohol at the centre of explanations for violence. One of their responses has been to step up police pressure on authorised sellers of alcohol in the precinct in an attempt to ensure they abide by their license agreements. At the same time they have sought to clamp down on all illegal sales of alcohol through regular informal raids combined with large scale operations.
A September 2013 article in the South African Crime Quarterly by Clare Herrick of King’s College and Andrew Charman of Cape Town’s Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, shed new light on police raids in Nyanga. By describing the experiences of the mostly women shebeen owners as they struggle to eke out a living in the midst of harassment from both criminal offenders and police, they raise important questions about the value and harms of these kind of law enforcement interventions. But the picture they presented remained incomplete.
Having spent time in the precinct around the same period that Herrick and Charman had collected their data, I thought I would take the opportunity to present the raids from the perspectives of the police officials I had shadowed. While in general I was impressed by the politeness and patience with which officials carried out these liquor enforcement operations, it was clear that their work caused pain and distress to those selling alcohol, as described at the start of this entry. Usually shebeen owners would stand in silence and watch as their alcohol was carried away. But sometimes things were messier. With law enforcement they so often are.
Read the full open source article here.
[i] In South African English a ‘bakkie’ refers to a pickup truck, often with an open rear storage area. They are commonly used by the SAPS.