chapter  6
‘Ons gaan ry!’: on entanglement and human rights as violence
Pages 28

The dockets remained untouched on the back seat until they were carried up again to his office at the end of each day. One of the most pervasive experiences of my fieldwork was learning how

much time police officers spent pursuing private affairs during working hours. The activities varied from pastime activities, to maintaining social networks, to matters pertaining to the improvement of their livelihoods. At first I saw it simply as a convenient way to make use of occasional opportunities that cropped up, or as exceptional deviations from duty – as one police officer had defensively mentioned: ‘instead of taking our lunch break we go sporting’. However, as my fieldwork progressed the extent of these activities became apparent. In fact I came to think of unofficial business as a constituent element of policing work rather than as an exception to the rule. My experience and observations show that the pursuit of personal activities

has come to fundamentally structure police officers’ everyday practice and their relationship with the public. This has resulted in a deep, albeit uneven, entanglement of police officers with the city and its heterogeneous sociality. From the perspective of ordinary people, especially those living at the margins of society and under precarious, informal conditions, this entanglement confirms their experience of the police as primarily unpredictable, if not dangerous and predatory. At the same time it offers new opportunities that allow people to claim police officers as personal friends. It thus valorises the imaginary of ‘your police – my police’1 and of the police officer as informal ‘private security’, as elaborated on in the previous chapter. To advance my point about entanglement, and to qualify simplistic

notions about corruption, I draw on Marcel Mauss’s theory of the gift, and on the concept of the frontier and its critique, which has a long history in South Africa.2 From there I turn towards what this means for human rights policing. To elucidate this question the chapter introduces some additional ethnographic material. This material shows that in an environment of informality and precariousness, human rights are not recognised for what they purport to be, namely a means to universal justice, but rather for the access they offer to state power in a personalised form – very often as brute force. It shows that the imaginary of ‘your police – my police’ produces a continuum of meaningful practice that ranges between a police officer who maintains personal relationships with city dwellers and one who tries to put human rights into practice. What all the approaches on this continuum have in common is an openness and willingness to engage in a form of exchange that leads to blurring the boundary between state and society. Using the concept of human rights to turn a police officer into a form of

private security might easily be considered to be a wrongful use of human rights. However, rather than asserting that such an interpretation has nothing to do with human rights, I propose that the notion of fake human rights deserves serious consideration. In fact I argue that local interpretations – what I call vernaculars – must be understood as fakery. Very much like the

trade in counterfeit products, the fakery human rights reveals a fundamental discrepancy between a middle-class state project and the conditions under which people on the margins of society actually live. The notion of human rights as counterfeit rights thus speaks to the exclusivity of the human rights project, and might in fact be the only way in which some of its radiating promise can be taken up for those who are actually most in need of it. This leads me to conclude that the way in which human rights are being absorbed in the South African Police force reveals something quite central about the concept itself: despite being positioned as counterforce to state violence, the use of ‘human rights’ as a state practice is actually in itself a form of violence; in this case state violence.