Within humiliation, there is a profound apprehension of the power of others to control one’s soul.
Johannesburg Central Police Station rises up in front of me with its eight ﬂoors and its shatter-proof windows and heavy grilles. It is the police station serving Johannesburg’s inner city – the business district, the hawkers and small-scale traders, and the derelict ﬂatland that is densely populated by immigrants who come from both outside the city and other countries. The inner city’s violent crime rates are among the highest in South Africa. Not many years back, when the city was for whites only, this police station
carried a diﬀerent name, one which people still use sometimes: John Vorster Square. It was named after the Minister of Justice, Prisons and Police under the then prime minister, H.F. Verwoerd: Vorster was later to become prime minister himself. It was a police station associatedwith accounts of horror. Here, political activists were held without trial under the state of emergency. In these rooms people had been subjected to torture. Some had been held by their legs, dangled out of windows, and sometimes dropped. The murders had been covered up with tales of suicide.1 While the shatter-proof windows and grilles were still there, the days of overt political repression had since receded. The name John Vorster Square, a terrible symbol of that awful past, took its place in history, and made way for the milder, more neutral, name of Johannesburg Central. This did not mean, however, that police violence had disappeared. One
morning in February 2002 while I was doing my ﬁeldwork, I showed Captain du Preez, a senior oﬃcer at the station, a newspaper clipping about police assaulting a young black man (Sunday Independent 16/02/2002). He promptly responded:
Well, it is very unnecessary, but it happens. It is when police are frustrated; then they can’t stay cool. People can be very cocky, and this guy
[referring to the young black man in the report] must have been giving them a hard time. There is this idea of the reasonable man, and that police can take these things in, that they can handle any situation like that, but police snap. I tell you, they are frustrated and so they give it to the suspect. It is diﬃcult for some; it depends on how they cope with the change.