Criminal Obsessions, After Foucault:

Postcoloniality, Policing, and the Metaphysics of Disorder

Publication Date: 05/01/2022

Journal: Critical Inquiry

Reissue Date:

Page start: 800

Page End: 824

Volume: summer

Edition: 30

“Perhaps it is because our lives are so chaotic, so filled with unsol- ved mysteries, incomplete stories, uncaught murderers that crime fiction is so popular. I believe that is why South Africans are so hooked on American TV crime series…because somewhere, some- how, someone is solving crimes. At least in fiction justice is served”….Michael Williams, The Eighth Man, a novel1

People across the planet have, in recent years, been uncommonly preoccupied with public order, crime, and policing. From Britain to Brazil, Nigeria to the Netherlands, Slovakia to South Africa,2 the specter of illegality appears to be captivating popular ima- ginations. In much of the world, to be sure, this preoccupation is far from groundless. True, “accurate” crime statistics may be impossibly difficult to arrive at3; such actuarial artefacts depend, after all, on what is seen to constitute a felony in the first place, on what counts as evidence, on how much is conceded to the truth-claims of aggregate numbers. True, too, the perceived threat of criminal assault is often incommensurate with the “real” risk to persons and property; as it happens, that risk remains more un- evenly distributed in South Africa than it is in most places.4 All this notwithstanding, the incidence of violent crime here, and its effects on the lives of ordinary citizens, are not to be trivialized. They are perfectly real. As criminologists have come to recognize, the burgeoning violence endured by segregated black communities under apartheid has, especially since the late 1980s, spilled over into once tranquil, tightly-policed “white” cities and suburbs.5 This is an integral part of our story.

And yet, at the same time, there seems to be more to the public obsession with criminality and disorder than the mere fact of its reality. South Africans of all stripes are also captivated by images of crime and policing, whether it be in the form of avid rumor or home-grown telenovelas, Hollywood horror or high theater, earnest documentaries or trashy melodramas. Whatever dangers they may dodge on the streets by day, at night, behind carefully secured doors, a high proportion of them indulge in vicarious experi- ences of extravagant lawlessness by way of the media, both imported and local. Why should this be so?

The South African preoccupation with law and order – or, rather, with its mediat- ed representation – is neither new nor unique. “Even though crime exists…in what the public chooses to think of as epidemic proportions,” wrote Stuart Scheingold of the US two decades ago, “we still feel compelled to invent it.”6 For over a century, in fact, fictio- nal “cops and robbers” have provided a compelling topos for popular myth-making all over the world; clearly, they offer pliant allegorical terms for exploring the nature and li- mits of social being almost everywhere. This taste for crime fiction is not restricted to those who consume it as mass entertainment. Nor is it of interest only to those who contemplate order in the abstract. To the contrary, theater and fantasy appear integral to the workaday routines of policing itself. As if to make the point, Scotland Yard recen- tly hired a professional magician, using “illusions as a metaphor for real life situations” to “boost [the] confidence and…leadership skills” of its superintendents.7 In like vein, as we shall see, the strained South African Police Services, whose cadres include a some successful diviner-detectives,8 devote considerable effort to staging illusory victories over the dark forces of violence and disorder. But why all the drama? Why would aug- ust officers of the law – the very embodiment of the state at its most rational, legitimate, and forceful – feel a need to play around, to act out, in this manner? Has Foucault not convinced us that it is the panopticon, rather than the theater, that holds the key to pow- er in its modernist form?


Crime looms large in the post-cold war age. Increasingly flexible in its modes of operation, it often mimics corporate business,9 constituting an “uncivil society” that flou- rishes most energetically where the state withdraws. Hence the implosion of ever more virtual, more vertiginous forms of fiscal fraud, ever more supple, border-busting markets in illegal substances, armaments, and mercenary violence – all facilitated by the liberali- zation of trade, by new kinds of financial instruments, and by cutting-edge communica- tions media. Hence, also, the role of organized crime: of the mafia and of business-ori- ented “gangs” in post-totalitarian polities which, for a fee, perform services that govern- ments no longer provide.10 Such criminal “phantom-states,” notes Derrida,11 are a fact of our times. Often embedded in complex transnational relations, often relying on highly sophisticated technologies, they shade into the networks of terror that are rapidly repla- cing conventional threats to “national” security.12 Indeed, received distinctions between crime and terror, always inchoate, are being revised as we speak, each term being de-ployed, ideologically, to make sense of, and to “fight,” the other. Thus it is that we have “the war” on terror, on drugs, on gangs, on illegal aliens, on corporate corruption, and so on. Note, in this respect, that Egged, the Israeli bus company, is reported to be suing Yasser Arafat for damages incurred in suicide bombings, and that Americans bereaved on 9/11 have filed a $100 trillion claim against Islamic charities, the Sudanese state, Saudi Arabian banks, and others for their support of Osama bin Laden – actions that would reduce the intifada and World Trade Center attacks to common illegalities ac- tionable by recourse to tort law.13 Under these conditions, crime and terror merge in the epistemic murk of a “new” global system that both reproduces and eclipses its old inter- national predecessor. In the upshot, social order appears ever more impossible to ap- prehend, violence appears ever more endemic, excessive, and transgressive, and poli- ce come, in the public imagination, to embody a nervous state under pressure. Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, hardly known for their civility, recently described themselves as “the outer membrane of civilization” in a disorderly world.14 Similarly, the policeman protagonist in a stunning piece of postcolonial South African theater, Neil McCarthy’s The Great Outdoors, observes that the “line between order and chaos” is like “one strand of a spider’s web.”15

The obsession with crime and lawlessness is not merely a commentary – at least, in South Africa – on social order, sui generis. It is also a reflection on the state of the nation. Take mass advertising, a genre that seeks to transform nightmare into de- sire. In April 2001, the Mail & Guardian, perhaps the most seriously critical newspaper in the country, observed that “bolted doors, patrolling dogs defending gated communi- ties and dark figures cocking guns in the shadows appear even in ads for toilet paper and popcorn.”16 At the time, a music radio station in Johannesburg was promoting itself, on huge billboards, by means of just two words: MORE POLICE. And, even more wryly: “YOU CAN TAKE THE CAR. JUST LEAVE THE RADIO. 98.7FM” Hardly subtle, this counterpoint between panacea and panic, pop and the politics of enforcement, ardent consumerism and Hobbesian anarchy. Texts like these are haunted by the specter of immanent attack, above all, attack on the part of unruly black youths. Violent crime, here as in the USA, has become the lightning rod for an escalating range of everyday anxieties; anxieties fed by the insecurity of the privileged as they witness the anger and impatience of those excluded from the Promised Land. In the banal theatrics of the mass media, crime becomes racialized and race criminalized. And both, if we may be forgiven the term, are youthenized.

Regarded in this light, South Africa appears to evince what Mark Seltzer has ter- med a “pathological public sphere;17 it is increasingly at the “scene-of-the-crime,” he ar- gues, that contemporary publics are constituted. But there is more at stake in the popu- lar obsession with scenes of violent disorder in this particular postcolony. This, after all, was, until not long ago, a racist police state; its transition from the ancien regime, more- over, was husbanded by a celebrated Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose deli- berations were based on a model of justice that sought to address atrocities past with- out resort to punishment. Consequently, beyond constituting a public, the “scene-of-the- crime” in South Africa, broadly conceived, is also the source of a passionate politics on the part of government, a politics aimed at making manifest both the shape of the na- tion and a form of institutional power capable of underwriting its ordered existence. What we have here, in other words, is an inversion of the history laid out by Foucault in Discipline and Punish,18 according to which, famously, the theatricality of premodern power gives way to ever more implicit, internalized, capillary kinds of discipline. Indeed, it is precisely this telos – which presumes the expanding capacity of the state to regu- late everyday existence and routinely to enforce punishment – that is in question in South Africa. To wit, the drama that is so integral to policing the postcolony is evidence of a desire to condense dispersed power in order to make it visible, tangible, accountable, effective.19

These theatrics, we shall see, are anything but hidden or half-hearted. More of- ten than not they assume the overdrawn shape of melodrama, a genre, according to Peter Brookes,20 that polarizes conflicting forces in such a way as to “make evident, le- gible, and operative” values which lack the transcendent authority of a religion, a domi- nant ideology, or whatever. So it is with the spectacle of policing, the staging of which strives to make actual, both to its subjects and to itself, the authorized face, and force, of the state; of a state, that is, whose legitimacy is far from unequivocal. Nor is this true only in postcolonies. Wrote Malcolm Young, an ethnographer of British law enforce- ment: “police culture possesses a dramaturgical or melodramatic inflection.” It mobilizes “illusion, praxis, and imagery” in “well-directed” social productions, deploying “mythical archetypes…in exaggerated games of ‘cops’ and ‘robbers’.”21 Melodrama in blue, so to speak. Young should know. He was himself a career police officer. His testimony returns us to one of our opening questions, now phrased more specifically: In what ways have illusion and fantasy been implicated in the work of law enforcement in recent South African history? And what might changes in the nature of police performance, in all senses of that term, tell us about the postcolonial – post-Foucauldian? – state, about its powers and its differences from its precursor?

A great deal, in answering these questions, hangs on the way in which we grasp the connection between modernist state power and popular fantasies of law and order. Gramsci, for instance,22 observed that judicial apparatuses are “always in discredit” with the public, a corollary of which is the enduring appeal of private and amateur sleuths. Especially pertinent to our story, in this respect, is the reflection of CLR James’ on de- tective fiction in America after the Great Depression.23 There has, of course, been a long-standing infatuation with extralegal enforcement in US history; it has expressed it- self not just in the popularity of such things as the dime western, but also in the horror of public lynchings. James’s exploration of the salience of the genre in the 1930’s is to be read against this backdrop. Popular film, comics, and radio at the time, he recalls, were finely tuned to mass desire and frustration, giving allegorical shape to apprehen- sions about the meaning of freedom, prosperity, and nationhood in the midst of epic cri- sis. It was a moment of reckoning, too, for the liberal state and its moral economy; its failure to nurture a capitalist commonwealth had driven many ordinary people to despe- ration. Yet the avidly consumed crime drama of the period seldom spoke of economic collapse, labor struggles, or fear of war. This, James insists, was less a matter of deli- berate sabotage than of a silent, “armed neutrality” among the classes.”24 In the space vacated by politics, dyspeptic private eyes sallied forth in the name of the law, sharing some of the hoodlum chic of gangsters themselves: above all, a “scorn for the police as the representatives of official society.” 25 As ruling institutions lost legitimacy, gumshoes – men of iron, men of irony – became purveyors of a cynical justice that acknowledged anger, appetite, fallibility, power. In so doing, they made it possible to imagine a social order wrought by heroic action in the cause of a greater moral good.

The detective fiction of post-depression America bears some kinship with popular imaginings of law and order in South Africa after apartheid: its reference to rapidly changing social and economic conditions; to the shock effect of mass joblessness and the unfulfilled promise of a new age of prosperity; to a perceived failure of the regulato- ry state; to a view of the police as inefficient and easily corruptible; to the bipolarization of crime into, on one hand, petty felonies committed by drab miserables driven by ne- cessity and, on the other, the flamboyant larceny of defiant antiheroes. If the US crisis yielded the New Deal, it remains to be seen what kind of deal the “new” South Africa fa- shions for itself. In the meantime, criminality has come to be represented, as it was in America during the 1920s and ‘30s, and would be again in the late twentieth-century in- ner city, as a means of production – or, rather, of productive redistribution – for those alienated by new forms of exclusion. At the same time, there is more at work in contem- porary South Africa than simple deprivation. As Jonny Steinberg points out, and mass- mediated drama affirms, the local underworld is not the sole preserve of the poor; it is peopled, as well, by the “well-healed and well-educated.” This suggests that, for an ever more visible sector of the population, most of all young black men, gangster “lifestyles” have a seductive appeal.26 It also suggests, after CLR James and many popular movies and musics since his day, that the outlaw embodies, often in deeply racialized guise, a displaced discourse about desire and impossibility, one as characteristic of the neoliberal moment in South Africa as it was of the depression-era US. Here too, the state is regarded with ambivalence, roughly in proportion to its alleged failure to secure the well-being of its citizens. Here, too, violence speaks elegaically of a very general angst about the anomic implosion of the established order of things.

The sheer fecundity of crime-as-imaginaire is no mystery. Thoroughly grounded in the experience of the real, it gives voice to a fundamental conundrum of social being in the secular liberal state, a conundrum of unsettling relevance in the US since 9/11: How much freedom ought to be alienated, in the cause of security, to any regulatory re- gime, especially one whose legitimacy is open to question. This is a tension that dra- mas of law and order tend everywhere to resolve, in Durkheimian fashion, by making the obligatory appear desirable.27 But fantasy is never reducible to pure functionality. Crime fiction also provides readily available tropes for addressing ironies, for ventilating desires, and, above all, for conjuring a moral commonweal, especially when radical transformation unseats existing norms and robs political language of its meaning. In these circumstances, the felon personifies an existence beyond the law, an existence at once awesome, awful, and sublime. Mogamat Benjamin, high ranking member of a deadly gang in Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison recently told a TV team: “I am powerful; I am partly God.”28 He was referring to his capacity to determine the lives and deaths of other inmates, even warders. Brusque iconoclasm of this kind opens a space of possibility, a space in which order is up for grabs, a space in which new modes of being are forged in the heat of unspeakably transgressive violence as the state withdraws or is rendered irrelevant. Benjamin and his brethren run a comp- lex organization in the dark interstices of the jail by means that elude its administration; means that spill back into the tough terrain on which their gang does its usual busi- ness.29 Shades here of another revered Benjamin, Walter Benjamin, for whom violence in its archetypal, mythic form was a “manifestation of the Gods.”30 It is awesome, he argued, because it threatens state monopoly over the law; note how “‘great’ criminal[s],” even when their ends are repellant, arouse the “secret admiration of the public.”31 But why do these figures, large and small, take on such intense salience in the here-and- now? Is this a result of the unique predicament of the postcolony? Or did it exist be- fore?

Some clues from elsewhere may be helpful. James Siegel, for example, shows how, in an Indonesia facing political and economic dissolution, “the body of the criminal” has become the alibi against which the integrity of the nation and the law is asserted.32 The “dangerous classes” serve a similar symbolic end in an ever more polarized, post- industrial Britain, says Malcolm Young: police invoke them to authorize “wars” – again, that term – on behalf of “the social order” against whatever is seen to imperil it.33 Like- wise banditry in parts of the Mediterranean and Latin America, where outlaws are cast as a fearsome anachronism over which modernist states must exercise authority in order to sustain the viability of the polity and its sovereign space.34 In sum, the figure of arch-felon, albeit culturally transposed, seems to be doing similar work in many places, serving as the ground on which a metaphysics of order, of the nation as a moral com- munity guaranteed by the state, may be entertained, argued for, even demanded.

The question, then, is plainly this: To the extent that discourses of crime and en- forcement, as popular national fantasy, are endemic to the imaginary of modern state power, how might current changes in the nature and sovereignty of states – especially postcolonial states – be tied to the criminal obsessions sweeping so many parts of the world? Why do outlaws, as mythic figures, evoke fascination in proportion to their pen- chant for ever more graphic, excessive, unpredictable violence? In South Africa today,

Rob Marsh points out, it is white-collar crime that is most likely to “bring the country to its knees.”35 But it is red blooded assault on persons and property that is of most public concern. Violence, in short, is immensely productive, sometimes horrifyingly so: quite apart from its capacity to redirect the flow of wealth, it usurps representation, reveals the limits of order, and justifies state monopolies over the means of coercion.

Self-evidently, violence is never just a matter of the circulation of images. Its ex- ercise, legitimate or otherwise, tends to have decidedly tangible objectives. And effects. Indeed, it was the raw clarity of physical force that persuaded Fanon of its potential for liberating colonized bodies and minds.36 This notwithstanding, its means and meanings always exceed its immediate ends, precisely because they rely on poetic techniques to inflate their impact. Could this be why brute coercion everywhere is inherently theatrical, its perpetrators upping the emotional ante via a host of self-dramatizing techniques – before, during, and after the fact? Begonia Aretxaga, following Zulaika and Douglass, notes that brutality sets those who wield it in a “play-like” frame, one in which extraordi- nary feats seem achievable, in which all pretense of distinguishing fact from fabrication disappears.37 Those who wish to command must constantly invoke violence, if not di- rectly, then in displaced or mimetic form. It is this invocation – above all, by those en- trusted with the impossibility of enforcing the law – with which we are concerned here: its rough play, its predilection for criminal fantasy, its response to the vicissitudes of state power. The police become visible, argues Agamben, citing Benjamin, where the legal dominion of the state runs out; their “embarrassing” proximity to authority is mani- fested in perpetual displays of force, even in peaceful public places.38 As we shall see, where governance is seriously compromised, law enforcement may provide a privileged site for staging efforts – the double entendre is crucial here – to summon the active pre- sence of the state into being, to render it perceptible to the public eye, to produce both rulers and subjects who recognize its legitimacy. Herein, we shall argue, lies the affinity between policing, drama, and illusion. Herein, too, lies the source of popular preoccu- pations with the representation of law and order. Those, recall, were the two issues with which we began.

Let us move, then, onto the shifting planes of recent South African history. Scene 1 opens in the late 1980s, in what was the last act of the dying apartheid regime.

CAPERS WTH COPPERS: The Closed Museum and the Spectral State

We begin with an anomaly: a public museum closed to the public, perhaps inde- finitely. If this is an oxymoron, it is one that indexes the contradictory implications of ra- dical democratization for the construction of a nation of free citizens on the vestigial ruins of a police state, the ruins of a polity founded on racial exclusion.

In 1999, when first we visited the South African Police Museum, housed in a shabby, elegant Victorian building in Pretoria, the executive capital of the country, it was shut for “renovation.” The edifice, which had been the national Police Headquarters in the 1930s was, we were told, in dangerous disrepair. This was visibly so, although it soon became clear that the wear and tear was not merely architectural. For the public exhibition space had coexisted, in the apartheid era, with something else, something clandestine, something now abhorrent: the epicenter, and an interrogation facility, of the infamous national security service. The bizarre coexistence of the two within the same walls – the museum below, the secret police above – appeared to be beyond coincidence. But more of that in a moment. It was not only the lurking traces of state terror that compromised the building. The content of the exhibits, once very popular with patrons, had themselves become inappropriate. State museums, of course, are more or less blatant statements, conjuring up the national populations, subjects, and interests for which, and to which, they speak. In times of historical change, they offer glaring indictments of denatured ideologies, of a slippage between state and nation, signifiers and signifieds. Not surprisingly, they have become prime objects of argument about the politics of representation in the “new” South Africa. Behind closed doors, in the late 1990s, the staff of the Police Museum pondered how to make their displays relevant to the post-apartheid era.

We had been drawn to the place by an interest in the changing public sense of police work brought by the advent of majority rule.39 The indefinitely closed museum called forth an historical speculation, a hypothesis if you will: that reforming the image of the old South African Police Force, jackboot of the state, into that of the South Afri- can Police Services, a gentler, human-rights orientated, community-friendly agency, could well turn out to be an exercise in impossibility. By the late apartheid years, when it became increasingly difficult to contain the contradictions of the racial state, the SAP operated, for the most part, as a paramilitary force. Its security branch existed above the law, torture and deadly force were routine in the treatment of political dissidents, and a dense network of informers extended its capillaries into every sphere of existen- ce. Against this background, the state portrayed the police as heroic defenders of order against terror, treason, and savage insurrection.

The Police Museum spoke unchallenged from the heart of that state. It began life in 1968 as a haphazard collection of relics – murder weapons, graphic photographs of “ritual” mutilations, the personal effects of a famous female poisoner – all from land- mark cases of the more or less distant past; these being used, early on, in the training of cadets. With the recruitment in 1982 of a museologist, Tilda Smal, herself a police of- ficer, the collection was developed in an altogether more ambitious direction, combining edification with entertainment, high melodrama with low-tech installations. Central to its design was a series of tableaux that, together, composed a specifically South African history of crime and punishment. They also served as the setting for what would beco- me the best known feature of the institution, its Night Tours, during which staff of the museum and the Police Education Unit brought epic felonies to life by impersonating famous “criminals.”

There could hardly be more literal or vivid evidence of the dramaturgy, the melo- drama, of police work. But what did it all mean? What prompted otherwise austere offi- cers of a police state to inhabit the personae of their arch-enemies; indeed, to make public exhibitions of themselves in order to delight and terrify rather ordinary patrons and their children? What might their play have had to do with the more sinister rituals that took place backstage in this extraordinary venue?

We take up the story with the help of the curator.40 The Museum, said Sgt. Smal, was only allowed to display artifacts from cases that had ended in convictions. It catalo- gued the triumph of law and order over enemies of the state. In the 1980s, the range of exhibits – a mixture of dioramas, documents, and objects – covered two key domains of police work. One was the apprehension of spectacular criminals, the other, the protec- tion of “national security” against the threat of “terrorism” and, later in the decade, “dangers on the borders.” Installations of the first kind featured the likes of Daisy de Melker, perhaps South Africa’s most notorious serial killer: indicted for poisoning two husbands and one of her children, de Melker was an horrific inversion of the national stereotype of the genteel white female, entrusted with reproducing the moral essence of her race.41 Such emblems of aberration within the nation were set off from the peril to its existence posed by those alienated from it: by Poqo, the armed wing of the radical Pan-African Congress, for instance, which, in the early 1960’s had made a particular target of the police,42 and by the “Rivonia conspiracy,” uncovered with the arrest, in 1962, of several top ANC leaders, most notably Nelson Mandela, who were alleged to be plotting treas- on. Dioramas dealing with defensive action on the borders depicted a hostile alliance of others bent on bringing down the ruling regime: exiled “terrorists,” sympathetic frontline African states, and international communism. As this installation underlined, the dividing line between the military and the police was conspicuously fuzzy in the late years of minority rule.

Night Tours, in which the tableaux were animated, were started in 1990 as a “once-off” experiment to entertain a group of “VIP’s” from the International Police Asso- ciation. Word spread. Besieged by inquiries from an interested public, the staff decided to offer the tours on request. Soon the demand became overwhelming: at one stage, there were three a week, all year, each for 40 visitors. Performances continued until the building closed in April 1999. Initially, most visitors, both night and day, were white Afri- kaans-speaking South Africans. Later, Africans, especially school groups, began to pat- ronize the place. By that time, efforts had been made to revise the exhibits (see below). The Police Museum, in which everything was free of charge, seems to have been popular above all with the super-patriotic and the very poor. Toward the end, the Night Tours attracted some cultured critics of the regime, for whom this dark, if not wholly in- tended, parody – its freak-chic – became an excursion into the comic underside of the police state.

The staff look back on the Tours with great fondness. These were occasions of carnivalesque camaraderie, occasions that gave license for various sorts of play, some of it decidedly ambiguous. As visitors entered the building, they came upon cops in ana- chronistic uniforms on antique bicycles; a somewhat heavy-handed signal, this, that they had departed real-time for the domain of history-as-theater, of docu-dramaturgy. As we intimated earlier, the vaudeville itself turned on the willingness of the officer-play- ers to inhabit the identities of public enemies. This willingness, almost a caricature of the mix of outrage and enjoyment that Lacan calls jouissance, may be read, following Aretxaga,43 as an appropriation by state functionaries of the “seductive and fearful pow- er” of their adversaries. But there is more at work here. The performance also recalls the repetitive enactment of paradox characteristic of African rituals under colonial condi- tions.44 The Night Tours replayed the Hegelian enslavement of white rulers to the terror of the swart gevaar, a “black danger” largely of their own making. In the play, the prag- matics of melodrama permitted the separation of the civil from the savage, enabling the law to appear to act decisively upon forces of darkness, as if to redress the contradic- tions endlessly reproduced by colonial rule. The curator acknowledged that her staff presumed that patrons would be fascinated by sensational crime. And eager for vica- rious terror. Consequently, they sought to provoke first horror and then deliverance; such “vicarious adventures in the illicit and the brutal,” Scheingold45 notes, being a “prelude” to the gratification, to the “discharges of anger,” promised by “society’s act of retribution.” In dramatizing the difficulties of defending an enlightened order against un- couth odds, the police-players elevated their audience into metonymic citizens of the nation as moral community – and, also, into a public in need of state protection from a vast mass of unruly others.

Visitors remember the Tours vividly. One critical observer described the perfor- mance as a “home-grown chamber of horrors”: part amateur theater, part fairground haunted-house. Thus Daisy de Melker walked the halls dressed in period costume, of- fering visitors coffee from her poison flask. The real thing, that is, not a facsimile. Sett- ing the scene was a cast of characters who embodied less alarming threats to everyday order: a few police-women garbed as prostitutes, a couple who postured as addicts in front of a light show that simulated a bad trip; a group of “authentic” sangomas, traditio- nal healers, who enacted a trance to dramatize the dangers of “black magic.” Also brought to life was Panga Man, a notorious black criminal who attacked courting white couples while they were parked in a leafy spot in Pretoria, not far from the Museum. Bearing a panga, a large scythe, he would assault the men and rape the women – to whom, it was said, he then gave bus fare home. There could hardly have been a more intense figuration of the dark, insouciant menace that stalked the cities in the white ima- gination, threatening civility and its social reproduction. This nightmare gained fantastic irony when the attacker turned out to be a mild-mannered “tea boy” at police head- quarters.46 Epitomizing the standard colonial terrors of rapacious black sexuality and subaltern betrayal, Panga Man featured centrally in a regular Museum display, which depicted a car, sawn in half to reveal a couple looking up in petrified expectation of an immanent strike. During Night Tours, a door would burst open in the wall behind, and an African officer would leap out, brandishing the eponymous weapon. “We thought of having him shout something as he did so,” the curator told us. “But the first time we tried it everybody screamed so loudly, he could hardly be heard. People nearly fainted.”

By the mid 1990’s, with the dawn of the postcolony, efforts were made to add fresh exhibits to the Museum, acknowledging the possibility of different readings of his- tory and the presence of new sorts of citizen-consumer. The aim, said Tilda Smal, was to document the role of the police in the apartheid years in such a way as to capture black viewpoints on that history. This took it on faith that it was possible, within the same signifying economy, to pluralize existing displays, their ideological scaffolding, and the kind of nation they presumed. Thus installations on terrorism were revised to explain the rationale of the liberation movements. And tableaux were included to docu- ment the insidious indignities of the Pass System and the Sharpeville Uprising of 1960, in which scores of nonviolent African protestors were shot to death by police. Popular with the public, itself now changing in social composition, was a depiction of the sabre- rattling antics of the white-right Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), whose assertive racist posturing was the very essence of neofascist melo- drama. These changes produced some paradoxical moments – like one in which Nel- son Mandela, played by a SAPS look-alike, stood inside a replica of his Robben Island cell and answered polite questions from curious visitors.

Nor were they uncontroversial, particularly among older white police officers. The Museum, now under the jurisdiction of an ANC-administered Ministry of Safety and Se- curity, had entered an era of postcolonial contestation, becoming a space of argument as never before. So much so that, whatever the contingent causes, its closure suggests that it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions; these wrought by thorough- going changes in the racial composition and status of the police, in the ideology of en- forcement, and, most of all, in the relation of citizenry to government. But the question of what should be exhibited, how and why, pointed to something more than a shift in the way in which the nation narrates its past and future. It signaled a transformation in the social imaginary of the state itself – and the ways in which it deploys horror to make it- self visible. About which more in a moment. In the meantime, the museum staff, un- daunted, continue to plan future displays: on, for example, the more sensational abuses revealed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,47 on the “evils” of the “witchdoctor’s art,” and on such spectacular murderers as the so-called Norwood serial killer, who, as it happens, had been a regular police sergeant. But, as these museolo- gists are coming to realize, it is difficult to capture, in tableau, the realities of policing the postcolony. Not, at least, without rethinking the regime of representation required by the present moment. To be sure, in the final years, the Night Tours themselves ran up against this difficulty, finding that the line they presumed between fact and fantasy, order and chaos, safety and violence, was dissolving. In one instance, a harbinger of things to come, the police actors staged a robbery involving hostages and a fake inter- vention on the part of the Flying Squad, firing blank bullets. By this stage, however, vio- lent crime had become a pervasive preoccupation, above all in the inner city, where the Museum was located. As the shots went off, panic ensued. Unclear, in the midst of the mayhem, was whether or not the performance had been overtaken by a real attack from the streets outside.

It was not the first time that theater and brute reality had been confounded in this house of horrors. As we sat in the closed Museum, talking to the curator about its past and its (im)probable future, Tilda Smal gestured toward the ceiling and recalled how, in the old days, the Pretoria branch of the Security Police had been housed above. “A lot of fa- mous people were interrogated here.” she said, “Almost the whole current government.” The edifice had been home, then, to another, more sadistic form of theater: the surreal techniques of information gathering, of violence and terror, that were the stock-in-trade of “special policing” under apartheid. Since 1994, several prominent figures have revisit- ed the site of their incarceration and torture:48 the upper reaches of the building have, for former enemies of the state, become a space for re-visiting the past, a space for personal and collective re-membering.

During the heyday of the Museum in the1980’s, its staff and visitors used an en- trance on the east side of the building. The Security Police used the west side. When political prisoners were brought in, the clanking of their handcuffs and leg irons was audible in the exhibition space below. Sgt. Smal said that she had found it hard to be- lieve what she had heard and seen at the time. But, she noted, for patrons it all seemed “part of the show.” In this way, the Museum was the facade for state terror, and state terror the mis-en-scene for the Museum.

We are confronted here with the strangeness of the real,49 the unnerving interpe- netration of force and fantasy, of policing and performance, of the interiors and exteri- ors of the state-as-violence. There was no simple line, in this house with two entrances, between backstage and frontstage, between actors and audience, between the producers and consumers of a phantasmagoric reality. Ordinary citizens unwittingly played along in the fabrication and reproduction of precisely the sense of apocalypse – the ter- rifying threats to order – that legitimized the deadly exercise of coercion in the name of governance. For despite the distinction between public display and secret interrogation, each represented an aspect of the melodrama, of manufacturing truth by evoking terror, that appears essential to enforcement everywhere; one that takes especially cavalier and destructive forms in totalitarian states, where a continuing sense of emergency ex- onerates the most savage of disciplinary practices. In South Africa, in the present era of “human rights” policing, these practices have been radically transformed. But, as we shall see shortly, the reliance of the law on melodrama has not disappeared. In answer to one of our opening questions, there is both continuity – because it is in the nature of enforcement – and change, because of shifts in the political culture of its context.

Old horrors leave their traces. While the future of the Janus-faced edifice hangs in the balance, its uncanny past haunts those who were part of it, those who seek now to reconfigure its purpose in the present. Toward the end of our conversation, the cura- tor remarked: “We have a few resident ghosts in the building.” One, she confided, likes to play – note that verb again – with the security system when people work after hours; a phantom, perhaps, with a particularly poignant sense of irony. What is more, Museum personnel attest to strange nocturnal experiences. South Africans of all races have al- ways been actively engaged with the supernatural, although an obsession with the oc- cult has been especially noticeable during this time of transition.50 One Sunday evening, when Sgt. Smal was alone in the building, the alarm began to sound furiously. Unable to switch it off, she sat resignedly for two hours, waiting, as she put it, “for the spirit to play herself out.” On another occasion, she reports having shouted: “Daisy,” de Melker, that is, “leave the intercom alone!” The mechanism, she said, “went wild.”

But other, unnamed forces also spook this building, struggling to find voice in the great re-visioning of the past occasioned by the birth of the postcolony. It is as if the specters of bygone events are unable to find embodiment – or a means of representa- tion – in the present, notwithstanding laudable efforts to foster new cultures of recollec- tion; as if farce and tragedy, humor and horror, must confront each other before an aw- ful history can become a habitable present. Those who spend time on the upper floors during the small hours speak of an unquiet presence along the corridors. Some say that it is because many prisoners had “committed suicide” here; suicide being a sometime secret police euphemism for “killed in custody.” More recently, a security guard shot himself on the premises. Another person came off the street to take his own life in the courtyard. Black South Africans, in particular, disliked working in the place. Many still do. Here we get to the nub of issue. The lower floors of the building may be frequented by the ghosts of playful lady poisoners and other random spirits, but the upstairs has an altogether more sinister aura. Museum staff told us that, in the former Security Police stronghold, “there is a really strange feeling.” People hear the footsteps of those long departed. No one feels comfortable in the place. This is hardly surprising: only perpe- trators and victims know what unspeakable acts and agonies those walls have witness- ed. Thus it is that history shadows the reluctant consciousness of those – above all, those responsible for justice, law, and order – who must find ways to reconcile their activities in the past, a past that truly was another country, with the radically altered moral regime of the present.

No wonder the Police Museum remains shut. It does so not just because its cabi- net of horrors requires drastic revision in the postcolony, but because it must find new modes of melodrama, new forms of conjuring order from terror; all the more so since, in recent times, the public preoccupation with violent crime, fed by avid electronic and print media, has made reality seem much scarier than fiction. In the event, the now mul- tiracial staff of the SAPS Education Unit has, over the past few years, begun experi- menting with other genres of self-representation – among them, video shows, popular puppetry, and street theater – to dramatize a contemporary clutch of nightmares: do- mestic assault, rape, gun-related violence, drug abuse.51 As befits the ethos of a libera- lizing state, they take their shows on the road to the various provinces of the postcolo- ny. We follow them to one such provincial outpost, there to explore the nature of police drama after apartheid.

And so on to Scene ll.


In November 1999, we read in the national press that Mafikeng-Mmabatho52 – capital of the North West Province, where we were living and working at the time – was to host an exhibit on violence against women.53 This was to be part of a countrywide campaign, Project Harmony, which sought to draw public attention to the government’s newly-minted Domestic Violence Act. Members of the North West Police Services, the papers announced, would stage educational performances at taxi ranks, those remark- able agoras of African postcolonies. Our inquiries about the event drew a blank, how- ever. Nobody, neither the local police nor anyone else, knew a thing about it.

It was only after we traveled to the Secretariat for Public Safety and Liaison at its provincial headquarters, 10km north of town, that we learned the whereabouts of the exhibit. It was to be held in the foyer of the North West Provincial legislature. The Se- cretariat, it should be noted, is a regional division of the national Department of Safety and Security, under whose aegis falls the newly reorganized South African Police Servi- ce;54 although, at the time, relations between the two bodies were rather ill-defined. The new National Crime Prevention Strategy, adopted in 1996, promulgated a dispersed but “integrative” approach, provincial governments being charged with “co-ordinating a range of…functions…to achieve more effective crime prevention.”55 Precisely how this was to be done remained opaque, however, even to those entrusted with the urgent task of promoting “community security.” Here, patently, was local government faced with the demand to invent itself.

Which is where Project Harmony came in. The directive from the state that pro- vincial governments should raise public awareness of the then imminent Domestic Vio- lence Bill implied a clear line of action. Hence the announcement of the exhibit which proved so strangely elusive. But why, we wondered, had it been so hard to find? And why was it being staged in the Provincial Parliament? This is hardly a public space: se- curity was so tight that only members of government, their staff, and accredited visitors were admitted. Inside, in the grand lobby, two rather flamboyant members of the Police Education Unit fussed, with professional flourish, over a single tableau. The display was small but striking. A very still life, its centerpiece was a bed with disheveled sheets. Across them lay a life-size model of a female, race indeterminate, clad in the shredded remnants of upmarket underwear. Her body was bruised and bloody, her throat cut. A knife lay close to her face. Yellow tape cordoned this off as a crime scene, which was framed by posters and works of art, all depicting violence against women, all urging the public – in English and Afrikaans, but not Setswana, the local language – to “speak out against abuse.”

What are we to make of this grisly spectacle, whose artful detail seemed so to exceed its function? Why, again, was a diorama ostensibly intended to educate “the public” placed so securely beyond its gaze? The actions and anxieties of the police ar- tistes offered a clue. The display had to be ready for viewing by the parliamentarians, political and civic dignitaries, and press people who had been invited to attend a cere- monial session marking the passage of the Domestic Violence Act. They were the tar- get audience. It was they who were meant to witness that, notwithstanding mounting skepticism, local police and local government could cooperate effectively to fight crime. But the investment of those responsible for the exhibit, and the emotional power packed into it, implied that it was also a site of self-construction. Its authors, in the name of the SAPS, seemed intent on configuring a collective sense of moral purpose in the face of a daunting world in which violence was thought to have become endemic, ubiquitous, even unpoliceable.

What we were witnessing, in short, was the state performing for itself, performing itself. The state making statements. And drawing its charge from a violated female body that, in a shift from the older signifying economy, had come to stand for the moral citi- zen victimized by the new arch-enemies of the people. For the salience of the meticu- lous melodrama played out in this political setting was that it was a simulacrum of go- vernance, a rite staged to make actual and authoritative, at least in the eyes of an executive bureaucracy, the activity of those responsible for law and order. And, by exten- sion, to enact the very possibility of government. For the battle against crime, epitomiz- ed in sexualized attacks on women, has become diagnostic of the efficacy of the post- colonial regime at a time when the nation’s foes – its rapists and murderers, its gangs- ters and gunmen, its carjackers and drug dealers – are, for the most part, also its own recently-liberated subjects; this, recall, being one of the contradictions faced by the Poli- ce Museum in its efforts to revamp its signifying economy. In showing visible attentive- ness to the sanctity of the female body, to the specter of violence against it, and to poli- cing those who would desecrate it, the state objectified itself – to itself.

But the institutional face of government also insists that it be recognized by its subject-citizens. Which takes us to the other face of police performance, its public en- actment. One such enactment came at us, literally, two months later. At 8.30 am on a Tuesday morning in downtown Mafikeng, as children rushed to school and businesses opened their doors, we heard an oncoming cacophony of horns and sirens. Obviously a motorcade. Down the street hurried a motley array of conveyances: a few lumbering Public Order Police trucks (aptly named “hippos” in the bad old days), a number of pat- rol cars, and several civilian saloons; about twenty vehicles in all. Each contained a few uniformed officers of different ranks and races, who waved energetically to those gathe- red in bewilderment on the sidewalks. On the doors and hoods of these vehicles were scrawled English signs. One condemned the abuse of women. The other proclaimed: “Give them toys, not guns,” invoking a growing concern about violent acts perpetrated by children. This, self-evidently, was yet a further nod toward crime prevention. But it was also an effort to establish a palpable police presence on the streets by playing on the nightmare of a nation consumed by brutality, a nation in which violated mothers were producing a generation of infant felons.

People along the roadside, having discerned that the motorcade was “put on by the police,” paid it little heed. The once ubiquitous, menacing presence of the law has been drastically reduced here as elsewhere in the “new” South Africa. By contrast, poli- ce performances, especially under the sign of mass education and public relations, have become much more common. “The streets are full of tsotsis (gangsters),” one old man complained to us, “and all the police can do is play.” The choice of this last word will not go unnoticed.

The observation itself has some ground. Local law enforcement officers, sensiti- ve to the ambivalence with which they are regarded, have devised various home-grown techniques through which to enact their visibility, efficacy, resolve, and responsibility be- fore a population fearful to inhabit public space. One of their performances – a fake traffic pile-up, staged without warning at a busy intersection in Mafikeng during the mor- ning rush-hour – was so authentic that it caused pandemonium. And one, all too real, accident. Ironically, the aim of the exercise had been to draw attention to a campaign for safe driving: carnage on the roads, much of it caused by alcohol and criminal negli- gence, is another evil besetting the province. So rapid has been the rising death toll that it seems less accidental than an index of new dangers lurking in the unrestrained pur- suit of freedom, not least the freedom to consume, that has come with the end of apart- heid. And with the expansive, and expensive, ethos of neoliberalism.

Unlike the rape scene but like the motorcade, the accident inserted itself into the thick of street life. It deployed the full power of the law – the right to usurp public space and time, to conjure with truth, to evoke terror by mimicking death – all to impress upon “the community” the authoritative presence of the police, whose absence from crime scenes had been subject to much local criticism. But the smash was also intended, as was the Rabelaisian procession, to be a functional ritual: one that would turn popular ambivalence toward the SAPS into positive affect by dint of carefully staged emotions as transformative for the actors as for their audience. For here, again, the actors were the audience, the audience actors. Their drama was at once opaque to the public, yet made that public part of the staging. The unmarked pile-up, along with the illegible signs in the motorcade56 and the hidden-away exhibit at the parliament, implies a form of reflexivity in which the performers sought, by aping epics of disorder, to interpellate themselves as legitimate agents of caring enforcement: agents whose role in grappling with a new catalogue of national nightmares would be recognized, and respected, by the populace at large. For policing in this new era presumes a high measure of consent from citizens, a consent still very much in question.

If, as Malcolm Young says,57 policing everywhere relies on “well-directed social productions” to maintain the mythic divide between good and evil, is it any wonder that the new SAPS, still struggling to define itself on a reconfigured moral and political land- scape, should evince a strong tendency to “act out”? Or, as in the Police Museum, that the line between staged performances and the melodrama of everyday police work should often disappear – which it does in many theatrically-staged, mass-mediated arr- ests. This was brought home to South Africans a couple of years back by a series of ostentatiously publicized raids, led with extravagant ceremony by the national chief of police, on those Johannesburg “gentleman’s clubs” alleged to be trafficking in alien sex-workers.58 While it did not lead to many arraignments, the operation dramatized a recur- rent terror of the reconstituted nation: the growing mass of illegal immigrants, archetypal others, whose very being-there is thought to endanger both the borders and the interiors of the postcolony. That such performances – many of which feature police showing off their mastery in melodramas of despoiled female bodies – may be tentative and dispersed, that they lack the compelling power often attributed by anthropologists to communal rituals, is precisely the point. It is through their uncertain playing out that the “new” South African polity is taking tangible shape.


We have argued that, in postcolonial South Africa, dramatic enactments of crime and punishment – alike those disseminated by the state and those consumed by vari- ous publics – are not merely fabrications after the event. Nor are they reflections, inflec- tions, or refractions of a simple sociological reality. To the contrary, they are a vital part of the effort to produce social order and to arrive at persuasive ways of representing it, thereby to construct a minimally coherent world-in-place; even more, to do so under neoliberal conditions in which technologies of governance – including technologies of detection and enforcement – are, at the very least, changing rapidly and are, in some places, under dire threat. In these times, criminal violence is taken to be diagnostic of the fragility of civil society; concomitantly, officers of the law become the prime embodi- ment of a state-under-pressure. Thus the irony of contemporary South Africans who, in the effort to build a post-totalitarian democracy, find themselves calling for “More Poli- ce.” Theirs appears to be a decidedly post-Foucauldian predicament, wherein disorder seems to exceed the capacity of the state to discipline or punish. It is a predicament in which both those who would wield power and their putative subjects find it necessary to resort to drama and fantasy to conjure up visible means of governance.

This story could, of course, be read not as post-Foucultian, but as an historical narrative that proves the Foucaultian point; or, rather, that reinforces a Foucaultian te- los by playing it in reverse to show how, when modern power runs out, primitive spectacle returns once more. We would argue otherwise: that the distinction between politics- as-theater and biopolitics underlying this telos is too simple; that it is itself the product of a modernist ideology that would separate symbolic from instrumental coercion, melo- drama from a politics of rationalization. Melodrama may be the medium of first resort where norms are in flux and the state is incapable of ensuring order. But the history of modern policing suggests that theater has never been absent from the counterpoint of ritual and routine, visibility and invisibility, integral to the staging of power, and of law and order, in authoritative, communicable form; recall, one last time, the testimony, in this respect, of Malcolm Young, the policeman-ethnographer. That counterpoint, in short, lies at the very heart of governance, be it metropolitan or colonial, European or African, past or present.

There is a more than arbitrary connection, then, between law enforcement, thea- ter, and dramatic fiction.59 Crime and punishment are especially salient to the reciprocal fantasy through which police and public construct each other across the thin blue line 60 that makes palpable the power of the state, the thin blue line that, imaginatively, stands between anarchy and civility, the thin blue line that underscores the fragility of order and gives focus to popular preoccupations with the threat of social meltdown. All the more so since, with the rise of global capitalism and the mutation of the old international sys- tem, new geographies of crime and terror, themselves ever more murkily interrelated, have re-articulated criminality inside nation-states with criminality across nation-states, making both harder to contain or comprehend. All the more so, too, since the world-his- torical conditions of this neoliberal age – among them, the weakening sovereignty of na- tions and their borders, the diminishing capacity of governments to control either the means of coercion or the commonweal, the challenge of cultural politics to the liberal rule of law and its grounding in universal human rights – have made policing in its mo- dernist sense difficult. Perhaps even impossible.

This may be most readily visible in postcolonial, post-totalitarian contexts, where there is a paucity of civil institutions to counter the contraction of the welfare state. It is, however, as urgently felt in, say, the post-industrial north of England61 as in the norther- ly provinces of South Africa. And it expresses itself everywhere in the criminal obses- sions of both rulers and subjects. Thus, while much current opinion, stretching from li- bertarian to Foucaultian, might minimize the importance of “the state,” there is plentiful evidence in popular fantasy of a nostalgia for authoritative, even authoritarian govern- ment. This much is evident in the reflexive self-constructions of South African police, who dramatically inflate both the necessity to wrest community from chaos and their ca- pacity to do so. Their melodramas are founded on a dialectic of production and reduc- tion: on the productive conjuring of a world saturated with violence and moral ambiguity, the threat of which they alone are able to reduce to habitable order. Thus it is that, in their imaginaire, a metaphysics of disorder – the hyper-real conviction, rooted in every- day experience, that society hovers on the brink of dissolution – comes to legitimize a physics of social order, to be accomplished through effective law enforcement. Thus it is, reciprocally, that many ordinary South Africans are drawn to mass-mediated dramas in which men with badges confront, and typically overcome, the most heinous, most vio- lent, most antisocial of felons. Thus it is too, that, distilled in a fictional economy of representation, fantasies become facts, impossibilities become possible, and the law, as foundation of the nation-state, becomes visible once more.

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