‘Someone tried to break into my house while I was writing this book’—Christopher McMichael talks to mpho ndaba about his new book Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa

Christopher McMichael sat down with mpho ndaba to discuss violent policing, its historical origins, and his new book Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa.  

Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa
Christopher McMichael
Inkani Books, 2022

What today exists as South Africa cannot be understood outside of violence, whose origins require us to turn to the antiblack settler colonial capitalist and patriarchal order that produced suffering that spans across generations. The continuities of this violence not only challenge our understanding of temporality, but also how we read 1994 as a marker of a new country—what this was meant to signal.

When we comb through the contemporary public discourse on policing and violence, particularly the creative nonfiction that has come out over the past five years, one thing remains clear: here lies an effort to survive. And this is especially the case when we consider how these publications exist alongside the long history of political mobilisation that centres the experiences of black women, black queer people, black communities and black community workers, among others.

We have seen artists, theatremakers, journalists, curators, writers, community organisers and policy experts deploy a range of modes of communication to speak, to share their ideas, and to build community—this they do with the hope that their contributions will operate as deeply engaged sites out of which sustainable solutions might emerge. 

And while there certainly has been a reluctance to take what might be seen as the radical position, as embodied in the works of political theorists, writers, and thinkers such as Joy James, Calvin Warren, Lesego Rampolokeng, Tendayi Sithole and Frank Wilderson, that we must end the world as we know it, what can be appreciated from the literature on policing and violence is that everyone is aware that the black subject in South Africa—the poor, the undocumented, women, children, the working class, rural, urban, with experiences of transgenerational accounts of violence—is always an object around which the machinations of the state, policing and military apparatus become justified in the name of public order. 

Order, order, order matters. This construction of the black subject, against which policing must take place, like the use of swart gevaar, communicates one thing: the black subject innately lacks the capacity to be a civilised being. 

In other words, therefore, these works exist in what I conceive to be an ecosystem of care, chanting the same message: the direct, the slow, and the in-between forms of violence, as linked to the South African state and its system of policing, render this country simply unsustainable.

It is out of these conditions of racialised, gendered and class-mediated suffering and violence that when we turn to Sondela, the debut album by the Johannesburg-based duo Thesis ZA, made up of Ayanda Charlie and Ondela Simakuhle, and the song ‘Chosi’, there is a question that needs an answer: ‘thina sixole kanjani sihlupheka kanje’ [how can we find peace when is so much black suffering?].

Thesis ZA enter a musical landscape filled with works that have been created in response to the gratuitous violence of democratic South Africa; compositions from the likes of Msaki, Simphiwe Dana and The Brother Moves On, among others, become a multigenerational lament, a wondering about the future, and an archiving of the violence that largely affects black people. 

Concerning violence, crime and policing, too, there are connections between acts perpetrated by the state, police, the military, and the private security industry. 

The records of violence in post-apartheid are rich, among others comprising, for example, the 1998 Benoni Dog Unit attack, when Gabriel Pedro Timane, Alexandre Pedro Timane, and Sylvester Cose—all undocumented migrants from Mozambique—had police dogs set on them by the newly reformed white members of the South African Police Services (SAPS); the 2011 killing of Andries Tatane; the 2014 massacre of the thirty-four miners at Marikana; the persistent targeted killings of the comrades who form part of the Abahlali baseMjondolo; the rate at which gendered violence, affecting women, children, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities, is prosecuted; the 2020 killing of Nathaniel Julies, the 2021 killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba. These examples reaffirm the same conclusion: South Africa is unstainable, with violence that is indiscriminate.  

As they relate to how these acts of violence are carried out, the histories of black abjection in the so-called new order, post-1994 South Africa, highlight how there have been mutations, involving complex financial webs, systems of governance, political ideologies, poor government administration, uses of the law, backed by toxic culture. All these, when taken together, usher us to an understanding of how the greedy, violent and money-driven actors, in both the public and private sectors, regard violence as a necessary condition for there to be life in South Africa. 

Such a recognition, suffocating as it might be, has not stopped thinking, writing and community organisation. Over the years, we have seen the publications of, among others, The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on the Rape Trial of Jacob Zuma, by Mmatshilo Motsei (2007); Can We Be Safe? The Future of Policing in South Africa, by Ziyanda Stuurman (2021); Femicide in South Africa, by Nechama Brodie (2020); Rape: A South African Nightmare (2015) and Female Fear Factory (2021), by Pumla Dineo Gqola; and A Man, A Fire, A Corpse, by Rofhiwa Maneta (2022)—all of which are in dialogue with one another. 

And although these books use different forms and styles of address, they grapple with the various articulations of violence that can only be understood when we turn to South Africa’s histories of racial slavery, patriarchy, settler colonialism, apartheid, and the politics that mark the everyday life in South Africa’s post-apartheid public imagination (neoliberalism, cronyism, violent masculinities, among others). 

Through Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa, a book by researcher, journalist and scholar Christopher McMichael, we see how public writing continues to wrestle with sometimes complicated questions. McMichael’s work exists in this pool of publications that tie together race, class, gender, capitalism and colonialism as the key defining features of South Africa’s system of policing today. Here too lies hope—whether this is good or bad—that out of such a contribution, potential strategies of imagining the future may come to life. 

Similar to how Hennie van Vuuren in Apartheid, Guns and Money drew our attention to the global financial flows tied to policing apartheid, Shoot to Kill invites us into the global political economy of policing the black subject. By looking into the linkages between the histories of enslavement in the US, European colonisation, and apartheid South Africa, McMichael demonstrates how fascist states across the world have always looked up to one another, especially with regards to how to best crush dissent and maintain white supremacy and capitalism—as seen in the case of military advice offered by Pretoria to Chile in the nineteen-seventies.

With carefully considered citational practices that take note of historical literature on violence, the state, patriarchy, and antiblackness—from the likes of Gqola, Stuurman, Angela Davis, Kelly Gillespie, among others—McMichael does not claim to be an abolitionist. Above all, Shoot to Kill does not just expand on what is currently available, there is also what must be seen as an effort to fill the gaps, something McMichael tries to do in just under two-hundred pages.

To chat further about Shoot to Kill, I meet McMichael on a windy Thursday afternoon, in the Johannesburg suburb of Melville. And although we initially agreed to meet at Spilt Milk, a café at the end of 7th Street overlooking the south of the city, we end up settling at IT Corner, where the noise levels are more bearable. 

mpho ndaba for The JRB: Hi Christopher, thank you. As a starting point, I wanted to ask: why did you write this book? 

Christopher McMichael: That is a really good question, because there are a few ways to think about it. What I realised is that there are quite specific incidences in my own life, like being a victim of crime and violence, and having had really negative experiences with the police. On top of that, in a country like South Africa there is a violent history but the violence is also such a presence. When I did my postdoc at Wits, I was fortunate enough to attend the American Society of Criminology conference, in San Francisco in the United States. And although criminology in the US can be very conservative, there were compatriots of mine who were critical, and radical. Just speaking to some of them, I realised that in the US there are books that look at criminology, crime and policing from a colonial-era period right to the current presidency. But I felt that in South Africa, there isn’t much. This was a much longer term reasoning. I also have [written research] material that has been published in academic journals, all over the place. And for a long time I have wanted to put it together in some kind of format.

But much more specifically, the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, that experience—surreal and dystopian—that period from March to April, pushed me to want to write this book. A lot of the police violence, and also the private security violence, forced me to want to write this book. This was also around the same time that the killing of George Floyd in the US happened.

The JRB: There are other books that have come out on policing and violence. How is your book different? 

Christopher McMichael: The literature on policing is very extensive. Definitely, I am not ‘reinventing the wheel’, but I wanted to synthesise it for a wider audience. 

The JRB: For clarity, you are looking to make an intervention that plays out in the form of looking at existing material, some of them heavy academic texts, heavily referenced?

Christopher McMichael: Yes, definitely. And this is also clear in how I structure it, it is a relatively small book, under two-hundred pages. I was very influenced by the tradition of polemical political essays, like Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. A lot of the things I was writing about were also coming from anger, the things we [in South Africa] are going through: extreme inequality, extreme violence. And one of the things I do in the book is I criticise the idea of generalised authoritarianism in society. I am trying to be cognisant of the technical research on police, I am not trying to downplay the importance of that. But this book is more generally political because a lot of it critiques. And this is what makes my book different, as opposed to taking a definitive position. 

The JRB: You take a historical approach. In the case of America, the idea is that the creation of the institution of policing, what would go on to become policing, emerges out of racial slavery. But in South Africa, there is the interest of private actors, in the case of the VOC and Jan van Riebeeck. Would it be fair to argue that in its historical context policing is a private-interest institution [and practice], in as much as it goes on to be included as part of the South African state? 

Christopher McMichael: Yes. There was, of course, very apartheid-style thinking that regards 1652 as the beginning of South African history. It is a complex history, you have the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, then the British Imperial powers. And then you have white settlers forming the colonial state that went on to become the apartheid state. The state itself has always been an expression of private interests. People tend to make an analytic distinction between the state and private actors, and the assumption here is that the state is necessarily a public institution. But if you look at the history of state power up until the twentieth century—mass democratisations—the state has always been an expression of private power. And one of the problems with South Africa is that there is a joint expression of power. They [public and private] work towards the same ends, informed by the same ideologies. 

The JRB: I appreciate that response. Now, when it comes to the conditions under which public policing emerges, which in the case of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries aimed to imagine social order in line with black and indigenous people, what are the implications of these histories today? Especially when it comes to the disproportionate violence black people have experienced.

Christopher McMichael: What I argue is that in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, with the VOC initially using private militia and later moving towards frontier raiding, they used a social control that was very different from what we imagine today, among things like police, the organisation itself, people, uniforms, and so on. However, colonialism, which I stress in the book, was an intrinsically violent process. I talk about Helen Zille trying to give a Disneyland version. 

A lot of colonialism was about extraction. But there are two main legacies that persist today, one is the normalisation of the idea of a frontier violence, governing of spaces, like how the township is seen as outside of the law. And the implications this has is dehumanisation. When I discuss the case of Nathaniel Julies, categories of people are read as not deserving of any kind of rights. And there is also pre-emptive criminalisation that occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Black and indigenous people were categorised as intrinsically dangerous towards white interests. And enslaved people from Asia [among others] were also intrinsically categorised as dangers. I argue that these were things that started with colonialism. You see it today, how cops interact with people, assuming that black people are dangers. There are certainly situations in my life where I got away [with what black people would not, in relation to the police]. 

The JRB: In the history of policing, and thinking of 1994, there was an attempt to restructure but also reframe policing and include ideas such as human rights and accountability. What is then the question of reform in this entire ecosystem? 

Christopher McMichael: That is a really good question, and one of the things I wanted to avoid is to have simplistic responses. I would say post-1994 was a huge break with the South African past. From 1652 to 1994, the entire state was controlled by a very small, belligerent minority, but today we have parliamentary democracy. In some ways, the reform should have been more general, that the state no longer becomes this thing that extracts money out of people and terrorises them. The state should have become more accountable. And of course, there were reforms that took place in the case of SAPS, for example the implementation of IPID [the Independent Police Investigative Directorate]. Obviously, which I talk about in my book, this is not being implemented. But what matters is that it is on the books, it is a framework.

The JRB: Oh yeah?

Christopher McMichael: But then again, the question becomes, why is it that this is not being implemented? 

The JRB: Yes.

Christopher McMichael: My critique is that there have been, especially on paper, substantive reforms. I do not look at it as a case of ‘either or’. I support anything short term, in the present, that is going to make people’s lives matter. Anything that is going to reduce arbitrary state oppression. Those are good things, but often you will read literature in South Africa that is critical of the police. Often they fall back on ‘oh we need police that are completely reformed, liberal democratic policing that is going to care about human rights’. And as I argue in my book, it is not the case that you cannot reform the state, but police as a specific institution is very distinct from, let’s say, health. It is not like reforming the fire department or municipal services. My argument is that the police historically, where it was created, Europe, and modelled after, is not something that is designed to uphold social order. My argument is that, to me, there are substantial limits to how far you can go. 

The JRB: My next question was going to be: how do you reform something that is meant to exert violence? And your response is, there is so much that can be done, but there is a super limited capacity?

Christopher McMichael: Specifically with that institution. I will give an example, say something like Home Affairs. The precursors to Home Affairs originally were part of the apartheid state apparatus, they were designed to try to keep control. Post-1994, there have been substantive reforms. On paper, at least, they [institutions like Home Affairs] should be able to serve the people. Policing however must be seen as distinct; it has always been a militaristic and hierarchical institution, and I don’t see that changing. And this is not to impugn every single member of SAPS, or anything like that. 

To give a counterexample, I lived in Japan and in Sweden for some time, and the reason I bring this up is because those countries have a low rate of police violence, but this does not mean that there are not police in Japan who are involved in corruption, or Swedish police who are sympathetic towards fascists groups. What my perception is, the reason why the police in those countries are way less implicated in violence and abuse is not to do with the police themselves but wider social factors. In the book I talk about how we have more per capita killings than countries like the US, and some of these acts of violence do not even get reported. 

The JRB: I am glad you bring this up, it is always good to problematise, and ask: what then? In your last chapter, you suggest that there must be much more bottom-up approaches to policing, in terms of things like community involvement and surveillance. And of course, the concept of surveillance is complicated, because it has implications on things like privacy, but you call for people to organise, and try to hold the institution to account, using things like public shaming.

Christopher McMichael: Definitely, one of the big problems is the so-called blue wall of silence. There are certain officers in the police who are delinquent, constantly getting in trouble, and get protected by SAPS. You also have instances where the government pays for their legal cases. So, yes, that is one of the things I argue in the book; that at the end of the day, cops are paid for by the public, and one of the biggest problems we have had in post-1994 is that we have a culture of amnesia.

The JRB: How do you mean? 

Christopher McMichael: For example, the ten-year commemoration of Marikana. There is a pretence that this was some sort of natural disaster, that nothing could have been done to prevent. You also have police officers who, for example, have assaulted someone. So, I think keeping pressure on the police, and not forgetting about these instances matters.

The JRB: But then how do you contrast that with the fact that, if we think of accountability in two ways, which you have alluded to, IPID does exist, but it is not effective, and we know this? There are many cases, the case of Julies, the case of Ntumba; instances where cases go to court but the way they were handled makes it challenging for them to stick, leading them to be thrown out. 

Christopher McMichael: I mean, that is a really good question. It is one of those questions where I say, I do not have answers. One hand, you have such an overwhelming reality, where there are also the behind-the-scenes instances where cases are subverted. I completely understand that. But I also argue that democracy is a constant work. One of the problems, which is not only limited to South Africa, is that political power can be used to achieve really great things, and can also be used to corrupt people. It is not even just a state thing. Here there is always a tension between accountability and authoritarianism, and I do not think there is any easy solution. What I hope people can take away from this book is that we should not accept the culture, which state officials want, of you vote for them once [every five years] and forget. 

The JRB: Where do we, the people, go, what institutions and mechanisms do we use? There is also harassment, targeted killings, and so on.

Christopher McMichael: That last chapter was difficult to write, especially because it is very easy to give people prescriptions, but the actual reality of how it is implemented is so different. So I try to argue that at least outside pressure can lead to some sustainable outcomes.

The JRB: There is also a question around the material lack that some communities experience, infrastructure, services, and how this shapes and contributes to people turning to unsafe attempts to, for example, sustain their livelihoods.

Christopher McMichael: Yes, definitely.

The JRB: My question then is, oftentimes you have instances where—something you do elaborate on in the last chapter—there has been this claim, especially under the administration of Thabo Mbeki, that to solve the crisis of violence there has to be investment in infrastructure. While this sounds logical, and I am sure you agree too, there is also another dimension, at the level of ideology. Are we not assuming that human existence is only logical if it exists in line with the material?

Christopher McMichael: That is one of the things I try to deal with: the assumption that because of impoverishment, people commit crime, which doesn’t make sense because then every single person below a certain income level would be a criminal. There is also elite criminality, people who just commit crime, and sometimes it is a psychopathology. Some of the most criminal people have been from the upper middle class. I think violence and conflict is intrinsic to the human condition, however, I think we can get to a point where there are degrees to it. I think there are specific examples, which can be improved by intervening in the material conditions of, for example, people involved in service delivery protests. This can help reduce the police violence people are often met with. The material intervention is important; better houses, places of safety for women who have been in abusive relationships, and so on. 

The JRB: It is great that people are writing about this because there is value in intellectual work, the research, the data, and how this can shape policy outcomes. As well as the kinds of policy positions we take as a society. So like I said, congratulations. Some books are not interested in providing solutions, sometimes authors are purely explaining in simpler terms, making it available. Do you think in terms of the suggestions put forward, these must exist in context? 

Christopher McMichael: Yes, I agree with that. And I hope this came through. The small contribution I hope this book makes is that it can make people change the way they think about policing and crime in South Africa. At the moment, things seem hopeless, but the danger is that this is how authoritarianism thrives; that the people have given up hope for a better future.

The JRB: Yeah.

Christopher McMichael: I also tried to have a lot of nuance in this book, and not make wild claims, because one frustration I had with a lot of criminology, it would be very good at showing the problems. And then sometimes the ending, the assumptions, were very simplistic. I am all for material interventions, there is a lot government can do to help, but a lot of this should not be left to governments, it should be left to the people themselves. 

I think there is no easy solution to these problems, and at the same time there are certain glaring problems that could be solved. That more police will reduce crime, almost like a theatrical element. The Western Cape is a perfect example, you will have these operations where they fly cops in, send armoured vehicles, which is self-defeating. A lot of the time it makes people in these areas open to collaboration. But also, the institution that is fuelling crime is the same institution that is asked to deal with crime. 

The JRB: Discussions on policing tend to focus on SAPS as an institution, as you rightly point out. But what is the value of thinking about private actors, the security industry itself, how racialised that is? Because you do say that even the failure of SAPS, from a financial point of view, does enable the emergence and growth of the private security industry. 

Christopher McMichael: I mention the statistics in my book but registered private security personnel are way more than those who work for SAPS. I think a lot of people, in general, have more interactions with private security than they do with SAPS. I live in a middle-class area in Johannesburg, whenever there is crime, the first thing we think of is private security. Someone tried to break into my house, funnily enough, while I was writing this book. Nothing happened, and the only reason nothing happened is because security was driving around.

It is also a money question; the sector is for profit. So, if you can afford to pay for private security, you are assured a level of security. But this does not apply to all sectors of society. I feel that if you are going to talk about policing, social control and surveillance, you must bring in the private sector. But what I did with my chapter, which I hope is an original contribution, which other people might disagree with, the idea here is that private security is not just about safety, it is about enforcing power. For example, there was this article in The Citizen last year written jointly by the South African police and the private security industry. 

The JRB: But then these questions around the private security industry blurs the ability to hold them accountable. In your last chapter you speak about cop-watching as one of the ways we can enforce accountability, how does this apply to the private security industry?

Christopher McMichael: This is an important question. So, my argument is that yes, I can understand why people are using it because it is fulfilling a pragmatic role. I am glad that there was a private security person driving around when I was almost attacked. But I also think we need to have the same level of scepticism as we do with SAPS. Any entity that has a monopoly on violence needs to be treated with scepticism. There is a continuum. And hence, I try to have them both in the book. I argue that they both have similar problems.

I find that some in criminology can have a naive understanding of state power; that just because something is, for example, controlled by the state, therefore it is controlled by the public. Abusive practices, predatory practices, regardless of who carries them out, exist across both. 

The JRB: Within the debates about policing, especially if we think of the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US, there was a question of reform. But there is always a conflict between reform and abolition. Within the ecosystem of writing that concerns itself with questions of policing, where would you say your book is located?

Christopher McMichael: Good question. I think in the book, I do not necessarily identify as or claim to be an abolitionist. The idea of abolitionism, people like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been working on for years, coming out of prison abolition. But the big thing that has happened, is that because of the uprisings around George Floyd’s murder, the Republican Party does not want to reform the police, and the Democrats want something completely different. So, the top echelons, President Biden, are not going to outright endorse abolitionism. Also, abolition is often misrepresented, people read it as ‘oh tomorrow, we are going to let everyone out, no matter what they have done’. But if you read, for example, the work of Wilson Gilmore, she argues that it is necessarily the hardened criminals who go to jail. But to me, these are administrative problems, not criminal. 

I think my book was influenced by this literature, that abolition is something to move towards. But I think it is also me generally being pessimistic. Some people might read my book and say I did not go far enough. But I would say that it was very much influenced by, that I am sympathetic to abolitionism. But I don’t think there is enough in the book to develop superficially a police abolitionist perspective of South Africa. I have hinted towards it, but I feel this would require more work from a lot of people. The way I see it is that I hope this book can be a contribution towards those debates.

  • mpho ndaba is a writer, filmmaker and sociologist based in Johannesburg. He holds an MA in Sociology and an MPhil in Environmental Humanities. His work has appeared in Africa is a Country, the Mail & Guardian, Odd Magazine, Arts of the Working Class and the South African Labour Bulletin. His intellectual and academic interests include global politics, antiblackness, the environment and capitalism.
Author image: Suzy Bernstein/Composite: The JRB

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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