You have trouble on your hands when one of the lead characters in the book you are writing tries to resign. This week, in the middle of a deadline from hell, my lovely fictional detective, Captain Riedwaan Faizal, told me he had had enough of the South African Police.
I need him!
He has seen me through four books and has helped my heroine, Clare Hart, out of some pretty tight fictional corners. He has shot his way out of gang-riddled corners. He has punched a rapist hard enough to make him feel a little bit of the pain he inflicted on his victims. He has bust enough gangsters selling drugs to children to make a wing or two of South Africa’s over-crowded prisons overflow. He has turned in a corrupt police officer or two.
But the most recent antics of the South African Police’s top brass got to him, like they got to many of us and by Thursday last week, I had an insurrection on my hands. He would not drive his car, he would not shoot, he would not arrest anybody. He use an untranslatable Afrikaans phrase, gatvol. All he wanted to do was throw in the towel, hand in his resignation and go and start a security company like so many other ex-cops have done over the last few years.
Writing about the police, like working for the police, in South Africa is not straightforward. I had managed to persuade him (and me) to stick it out when our last police chief, Jackie Selebi was given a fifteen-year sentence for corruption. In that long-running case a great deal of court time was devoted to proving that the plump and sharp-suited head of a large criminal empire with tentacles throughout South Africa, had given Selebi with cash and gifts in exchange for lost dockets and information.
One gift in particular caught my attention, a very expensive pair of shoes. Sharp and shiny, a pimp’s shoes, a gangster’s shoes, a bought and paid for policeman’s shoes. It was a revealing and diminishing bribe. Shoes are so intimate, so personal. Buying a man shoes is the equivalent of buying a woman saucy underwear. It is not a purchase that bears scrutiny if the relationship is a clandestine one. But I persuaded my Captain Faizal to stay on in the police force by persuading that his boss had been a weak and venal man and that now he was gone. The rot had been stopped.
A new police chief was duly appointed. Bheki Cele is a tough looking man with a taste for flashy suits and white hats, and a demeanour that suggests that he shoots from the hip. The developments around him have been far more sinister. Cele tweaked government tender and procurement procedures and signed a 500 million rand rental agreement for new police headquarters with an old friend.
A stitch up job quickly unravelled by the Public Protector who ruled that the deal the police chief personally approved was improper and should be cancelled at once and investigated.
Her judgement, in a political environment increasingly ruled by fear and toadying, was delivered in the most refreshingly unequivocal terms. Thuli Madonsela is surely the most heroic woman in South Africa.
Within days senior officers visited her offices from Crime Intelligence. Nothing official, they said, just an unannounced visit. They wanted a document pertaining to her report. They wanted to find, it would appear, who had leaked the story to the press. These are the actions of a police chief who considers himself a law unto himself, of a police force that considers itself a law unto itself.
This is far more sinister than a foolish and venal man willing to exchange his integrity and the country he is meant to protect for a pair of shoes and what looks like small change.
Before the democratic elections of 1994 the police force, headed in those days by thick-necked bullyboys, were used to enforce Apartheid, a criminal social fiction if ever there was one. It was also one in which unannounced visits by the police were a common and frightening occurrence. It was not a period of our history admired for the rule of law.
It would seem that the police force is being bent to enforce the wishes of the kleptocracy that is settling into the very marrow of our hard won democracy.
Riedwaan Faizal is, like many of the heroes of crime fiction, an Everyman with an edge. He has an instinctive feel for justice and even though he has not always done what is legal (according to the letter of fuzzily written laws) he has always done what’s right. Captain Faizal is, like all of us, a man who understands compromise. He has worked since 1994 for the South African Police, a complex and imperfect institution that mirrors our rainbow nation in all its tarnished imperfection.
I am not sure how I will persuade my Captain Faizal to hang in there. I am not sure how we, as a society, will persuade the ordinary cops on whom I have based him, to hang in there too. It seems vital that we find a way to do so.