Open letter to Vetus Schola
Update: Vetus Schola have invited me to attend a hearing on this matter.
We live in a traumatised country. Women live in fear of when the worst will happen (again), black men feel undermined and remember at a cellular level what white men did to them or their fathers; and white men are confused and petrified that the (petty) jobs they’ve offered aren’t enough to prevent a gun against their head.
On Saturday, I heard screaming outside my house. I’m pretty used to this – I’ve lived in much “rougher” neighbourhoods than the leafy suburbs of Paarl, and worked in far more “real” areas. And in those neighbourhoods, when you hear screaming you go outside and help.
Below is a factual description of what I encountered:
- First, a group of neighbours and Vetus Schola guard had detained a young man, allegedly for stealing a laptop out of the open window of a Main Road business
- The man was in tight plastic cuffs, face down on the ground; everyone was waiting for the owner of the laptop to arrive to determine if she would lay charges. Some made gestures – pretending they were about to kick him – not actually making contact. Instead of containing the situation and creating clear rules, the guard would make jokes – “no but why don’t you actually do it”.
- The laptop owner was taking a while to arrive and people lost interest and went back to their days. The guard started instructing the man to “roll” – like an army seargent – “roll, roll, roll” in the dirt. I asked him what was going on – he said I must not worry, the others will be here soon.
- Very quickly, the owner of the laptop arrived. The guard said that because she was a woman, he would encourage her not to lay a charge – attending all of those court cases would be unpleasant for her. If it was her husband he would suggest differently. It was unclear what would happen to the young man if she opted not to lay a charge – all I can say is “The vibe was not good”. (I was torn at this point. I am very aware that even a short jail sentence can ruin a young person’s life, or enroll them in much harder criminal activities. However, we would only know if this young man was already wanted on other crimes if he is taken in). Myself and another neighbour suggested to the women that she should work within the law and ensure that at the very least his finger prints are taken, and the crime is recorded on the official stats for the area (to be honest, I am still uncertain about this in terms of his chances of rehabilitation or enrollment into harder crime).
- Things seemed to have “settled down” so I went inside. Within minutes, there was screaming again.
- I came outside to see that everyone had gone, and another (unbranded) vehicle had arrived and driven right up next to the man – he had been screaming for fear of being run over (photo below – the only photo I took).
- The man in the vehicle waved at me as if to say everything is fine. I stood and watched making my presence known – both the man in the car and the Vetus Schola guard were on their phones at this time.
- After the car drove away, it was only the guard and myself left, and a gardening service crew working across the road.
- The guard lit a cigarette and paced around the detained man and said “you’re lucky I have a nurse here”.
- He then asked the gardening service for a rake. He asked one of the gardeners to help him “comb the detained man’s hair” with the rake. The gardener refused, but handed him the rake.
- He took the rake onto the detained man’s shirt and as he did this I yelled something along the lines of “you are not allowd to do this – you are allowed to detain him, you do not have the right to assault or to humiliate him” (I think I repeated this a few times, until he dropped the rake).
- At this point things shifted, and the guard attempted to loosen the plastic cuffs, but did not have the right tools on him to do so. I asked him to apologise – he apologised first to me, I corrected him that he needed to apologise to the young man and he did “I’m sorry bhuti”.
- I asked if the young man could sit up instead of lying face down in sandy grass (I was worried if he could actually breath, and the guard himself was worried about dust and flies – but was about to cover the mans face with a shirt)– he agreed and allowed the young man to sit up. (I feel ashamed that I did not demand this sooner – this entire time the young man had been lying face down in the dirt).
- I asked him what he had wanted to do with the rake – he said he had wanted to tear the man’s Tshirt up a bit while questioning him about some other thefts. I asked him what the “roll, roll, roll” earlier was about – he said it was to move the young man into the shade. (I wonder if he forgot that this young man has two legs, and is capable of standing up and walking to the shade?)
- At this point SAPS arrived.
- The guard started defending himself to me – he said that the only thing different between him and the detainee was their race, that there are poor white people who do not steal, that he has a coloured wife so he can’t be racist, and that his black co-workers respect him. I responded that I found this very strange – I had not mentioned race at all that day – I had had an issue with the treatment of this young man, but if he is bringing up race it makes me believe that race played into his decisions in some way.
- I explained to SAPS that I had been dissatisfied with the treatment of the young man, and that neither private security nor SAPS have the right to assualt or hummilaite detainees. SAPS did not ask me for any more details.
- SAPS loaded the young man into their vehicle and removed the plastic handcuffs and proceeded to get detailed of the laptop theft case from the guard.
- I thanked the guard for at least having heard me out and stopping his behaviour when I’d asked him to, and thanked the police officers for their arrival.
Vigilante South Africa
I know that there are a lot of people reading this who will think “that is not so bad” – across all racial and class lines in South Africa, we find people who believe that the law is not working, and that we should “give people a hiding” to “teach them a lesson”.
In fact, I realise that I might be in a minority position in raising this. There are often images of far more violent vigilante justice that go viral and I am horrified to see people cheering it on.
As a survivor of crime myself, I relate to the frustration of crime.
I am also someone who has trauma, and through this understands how trauma does and does not work to affect behaviour change.
Although South Africa is a country that still uses violence as a form of discipline (it’s not uncommon in parenting, let along mob justice), there is ample evidence that people do not learn through violence. Violence is neither a deterrent nor does it “reform” the person.
Additionally, it is a form of lawlessness on its own. While the “original” crime was theft, the “secondary” crime is violence. Which one introduces more trauma into society?
McCold & Watchels Restorative Justice Typology (2003).
In South Africa – there is the bigger project of justice to the black person that has not been delivered on. And then there is the individual project of restorative justice in the instance of a theft that has occured.
The victim of theft seemed only too happy to have her laptop returned, and torn about the implications of charging a young man or not. The broader community did have an interest in preventing future robberies. The dominant dynamic was between the guard and the detainee (and, arguably, after a while – me as an intervener).
I did not raise the issue of race on Saturday – but it was pervasive in the moment, and the guard defended himself as “not racist” without me using any racial terms – I had commented only on specific behaviours.
It was, of course, pervasive, because, a young black man in Paarl has limited access to large parts of the community, and most opportunities. He is one of many unemployed young people. This does not excuse his crime, but our responsibility to him is surely not to traumatise him, but to work with him to improve his circumstances, range of choices, empathetic abilities and access to support services?
It was also pervasive because the tactics used by the guard were reminiscent of Apartheid humiliation tactics. It was traumatising for me (and I don’t want to project experiences onto others – but I imagine for the gardening service and the TakeALot driver who briefly stopped) to witness an older, stronger, white Afrikaans man treat a small, young black man this way. Yes – he had stolen a laptop. He had been detained. That is what is permitted within the law – nothing further.
This young man has most likely experienced outright aggressive racism. He can recall and knows scenes of what white Afrikaans men did to black men not so long ago. Lying there face down on the ground, what was he thinking or feeling? How long did those minutes feel to him?
I can only begin to imagine the fear he felt that entire time a heavy-booted Afrikaans white man was circling him, or when the bakkie drove right up to him; or a rake was requested; and I noticed the disappointment on his face when out of the SAPS vehicle climbed two white Afrikaans men (who, while I cannot attest to anything that could have happened later, did at least immediately remove the plastic cuffs).
When your guard has power over him – in a detained position – he has a choice. He can re-enforce intergenerational trauma and societal hatred and fear. Or he can model that the situation of theft is being dealt with and nothing more – even, potentially, dealt with with an aim towards restorative justice: showing mutual concern and dignity.
(I do not, of course, know what kinds of trauma the guard might have experienced in his life. No doubt there is ample in his line of work, and in general as a South African. I acknowledge that this can also be a factor in the space.)
Vetus Schola, and other private security companies, probably has thousands of opportunities a day to do this. Not just between white and black, but between Xhosa and Zulu, South African and Pan-African, etc.
Private security companies have an increasing range of control over South African neighbourhoods and “public” spaces. You are meant to be tightly regulated, but a lot of your work happens in the dark of night, or is deliberately “not seen” by people who are sick and tired of crime.
I am not one of those people. I will not tolerate an escalation of theft into violence in my neighborhood.
More than that, I believe that if you look deep inside yourselves – and I saw it in the apology from the guard to both me and the detainee – there is a remarkably unique positioning in your work to contribute to restoration, reform and re-integration. But if you use your power wrongly – you will contribute to re-traumatising the next generation, and we will see even worse crimes of hate upon us – because one thing that is known for sure, is the link between trauma and violence.
Please, next time, think about it – are you creating an opportunity to restore, or an opportunity for more trauma and hate, and potential worse forms of violence in our society?
This is not just an “open letter” but an open invitation. I am willing to engage more in this topic, and can suggest councillors, social workers, priests, diversity consultants etc who are brilliant at sensitivity training.