The Persistent Racism of Policing

Many news stories have noted that the first five officers charged in Tyre Nichols’s killing are Black, as if this fact is strange—as if it undermines the idea that racism is essential to understanding police brutality. Some American commentators seem to think that issues of race must be absent when white people are not physically present.

These arguments made me think of Kgadi, one of hundreds of people I talked to over 10 years for The Inheritors, my book about South Africans’ memories of apartheid and how these memories shape the present. Kgadi grew up under apartheid in a Black-only neighborhood policed by an infamously brutal, white-led force. The police officers assassinated activists, busted down doors to execute searches without warrants, and tear-gassed the funerals of some of the Black civilians they’d killed. In the late 1980s, military police killed Kgadi’s youngest brother.

Now Kgadi serves in the postapartheid South African army. Like many people I interviewed, he asked me to publish only his first name. Some elements of his life felt so sensitive that he could only speak about them fully with some level of anonymity. Why he became a soldier was one such element. During a conversation, he told me frankly that he’d trained for the military partly because he “wanted to be like them”—like the apartheid regime’s white policemen.

As a teen, Kgadi hated these police. But he also felt helpless and ashamed that he hadn’t been able to prevent his brother’s death. Strangely, the more he came to see policemen as his enemies, the more he also perceived them as potential role models. To maintain his self-respect, he said, he had to believe that their shows of force were effective even if they were unjust. Because if the police weren’t formidable, that might suggest that he was the problem—that he was somehow weak for not resisting them more successfully. He still remembered his brother’s killers clearly, the young white men with ammo slung around their necks. He came to believe that the only thing separating him from them—the only thing preventing him from being an equally powerful defender of his loved ones—was their training, their weaponry. He began to want to wear their clothes. To carry their guns. To step into their identities.

[Eve Fairbanks: When racial progress comes for white liberals]

In a few decades, South Africa has gone from strict segregation to a place where people of color fill the president’s cabinet, dominate Parliament, set school curricula, run universities, write the news. South Africans constantly have to think about how people of color will use age-old institutions and instruments of power—such as the police, but also tools of economic policy, judicial discretion, even newspaper op-ed pages—that were previously used to oppress them. Unfortunately, South Africans would not be remotely surprised that Black policemen viciously beat a Black man. Incidents of police brutality happen here with tragic regularity, though by now the South African police force is nearly 80 percent Black. In 2020, in Cape Town, Petrus Miggels died after police assaulted him for trying to buy beer at the wrong time. A year ago, near where Miggels died, Dumisani Joxo, a bystander to a scuffle, was shot in the mouth.

Describing the white regime’s police, the head of South Africa’s Black-liberation movement said in the 1980s, “They shoot children. That’s their morality.” But according to one source, postapartheid South African police officers kill more civilians per capita than the American police do; two and a half years ago in Johannesburg, three officers shot Nateniël Julies, a teenager with Down syndrome, after many witnesses said he couldn’t respond to police questioning fast enough.

In many of these incidents, the police act in ways unmistakably reminiscent of their apartheid-era predecessors. South Africa’s police chief has encouraged his officers to think of suspects as “animals” and to kill anyone who’s armed—saying that when people under arrest end up in the hospital, they use “our electricity, our food, our medication.” Infamously, in 2012, an overwhelmingly Black and militarized police unit shot to death 34 striking miners, some in the back as they fled. Afterward, the Black-led government charged the survivors with effecting the murder of their own comrades—the same exact tactic the apartheid state had used to entrap Black-liberation activists.

Most South Africans, even many on the white right, would find laughable the idea that if no white individual is physically present at an incident of police brutality, then issues of race are absent. South Africa is the country whose history of race relations bears the most similarity to America’s: Many apartheid laws, for instance, were explicitly inspired by Jim Crow. Like America, South Africa was gripped for a long time by the idea that white people are entitled to government service while Black people require government control. Black Consciousness—the global philosophical movement that developed in apartheid South Africa—posited that to achieve freedom, Black people had to recognize internalized racism as a primary tool of the apartheid state. But it was apartheid’s aftermath that forced South Africans to face just how much internalized racism and old social and psychological dynamics can persist.

Many Black South Africans who attained positions of power after 1994 felt pressures they hadn’t expected to feel so strongly: a pressure to perform and do the job in a way that their predecessors would approve of or recognize, a pressure to live up to a long-standing definition of what a powerful person looks and acts like. To sustain white-minority rule, the apartheid state worked incredibly hard to convince the Black majority that the latter was unfit to keep law and order or run an economy. White people, the story went, took care of things. Under apartheid, Black students were taught a different curriculum, a quarter of which was dedicated to cooking, gardening, and the like because Black children had to be readied to “earn a living in the service of Europeans.”

Determined to maintain their image as rightful rulers even as apartheid drew to a close, some apartheid officials funneled guns into Black neighborhoods to exacerbate what they described as Black-on-Black violence. And then the government sent more soldiers to Black neighborhoods to do “peacekeeping.” Wally Mbhele, a newspaper reporter who covered this early-’90s violence, told me the move came across as an attempt to “prove only these people”—white people—“can save us from the mayhem that is our daily Black lives.”

[Read: How Apartheid haunts a new generation of South Africans]

I met Kgadi, the soldier, through his friend Dipuo, a former anti-apartheid activist. Under South Africa’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, Dipuo had expected great change. Black-liberation leaders had always stressed redistributing wealth—not only because South Africa’s apartheid economy was immoral, but because it had huge practical problems. It was designed to suit and support a tiny fraction of the country's population. Instead, Mandela suddenly asserted his commitment to the status quo, even dispatching his top brass to do “training sessions” at Goldman Sachs. He announced that his finance minister—a white man—had appealed to him “to ensure that [I] do not make remarks which have the effect of frightening away investors”—comments that sounded too angry, too “African.” Mandela went on: “I accept this without hesitation.” Dipuo was shocked: She hadn’t anticipated seeing Mandela act as if Black people would be South Africa’s problem going forward.

In a conversation, Vishnu Padayachee, an economist who worked with Mandela on his economic plans, attributed Mandela’s behavior to “our terror” of failure. Black South Africans had been liberated, but they immediately became global defendants in what could feel like a year-in, year-out trial adjudicating whether they were, in fact, ambitious and capable. By the ’90s, the West considered no sub-Saharan African nation a straightforward success story; many, like the Ivory Coast, appeared to come out of colonialism strong and then saw their economies virtually collapse. Padayachee sensed that the world was impatient for South Africa to be a “miracle”— that progressives, in particular, wanted South Africans to offer them evidence that their faith in Africa hadn’t been misplaced.

Padayachee remembered feeling tremendously trapped “by our insecurities.” He and his colleagues had been told for generations that they were unfit to rule. They felt unsure. Some on Padayachee’s economic team pushed for far-reaching reform. But others pointed out that Black people were taking responsibility for a system designed by white people, and it would give white people satisfaction to see them break it. Therefore, they argued, Black-led government should do everything that white economists and businessmen advised.

This pressure didn’t come only from white people. Discriminatory views of different races had become deeply internalized. In late 1991, Dipuo gave birth to her first child, Malaika. That made Malaika what South Africans call a “born free,” a member of the first generation to grow up without memories of apartheid.

The hope was that these children would live lives untainted by racism. Reality was different for Malaika and, stripped of its context, baffling. Why didn’t the white kids at her newly integrated elementary school—she was one of just a few Black students—want to be friends with her? Why did her math teacher grill her after she did well on a test? The teacher went through each question and asked, “So how did you get that?” It took some minutes for Malaika to realize: “She’s puzzled a Black child got 99 percent.”

But just as distressing was the behavior of some of her elders. “Even as the number of Black people increased” in her school’s posh, formerly white neighborhood, Malaika observed that they seemed to “get strangely a little bit more alienated.” Some went overboard building ostentatious security walls and refused to answer when Black handymen rang their doorbell. One woman in the neighborhood was a life coach, and she wrote an advice blog for other Black women aspiring to rise. In one post, she explained how to handle maids. Only give them half a loaf of bread for lunch, she advised. A full loaf was too friendly. They could bring home the leftovers, which implied that you understood they had families. Upwardly mobile Black women had to act like white madams for their maids to respect them, she said. In fact, they might have to act more madam-ish and haughty to signal their authority.

Many Black South Africans began to perceive, unhappily, that at times they were treated worse by Black authorities than they were by white people. One Black friend recalled waiting in line at a police station to get a form notarized. The Black police chief shouted more harshly at the Black applicants than at the white ones, as if the man felt driven to prove he could be a “proper” policeman by South Africa’s historical standards.

Black South Africans who complained about this kind of behavior could make new Black authority figures feel frustrated and defensive. Because, from their perspective, winning respect was excruciatingly hard, even from other Black people. A Black journalist described one exchange with an Uber driver: “You [wealthier] Black riders are the worst,” his driver told him bitterly. “Some rich Black chicks expect us to open the door for them or help them put their groceries in the [trunk].”

The journalist alleged that the complaint betrayed a double standard. It seemed to him that Black people sometimes refused to believe that others could acquire any authority legitimately. They saw him like white people did—as corrupt, either a sellout or a faker. “I bet you open the [trunk] for white women,” he retorted hotly. “Why do Black service providers not show love to us?”

There was always an unresolved tension in the Black-liberation movement’s fight against the world white South Africans created. Was the goal of the liberation struggle to radically dismantle this world—or just to move more freely within it?

[Hirsh Goodman: Annexation, apartheid, and me]

Kuseni Dlamini served as the second Black CEO of Anglo American South Africa, a mining conglomerate whose executives still perch atop the country’s extremely unequal economy. He explained to me the pull to join the top ranks of an institution from which he had long been barred, even if his younger self might have considered that institution rotten to the core.

Returning to South Africa in the early 2000s from Oxford, he had two options: go back to the Black-dominated area where he’d been born and teach college, or accept a job at Anglo American. The choice seemed obvious. His homeland would have felt disappointingly “familiar,” he said, whereas “in South Africa, historically, Anglo American had always been a very, very big deal.” For him, personally, getting to run a mine seemed to be the ultimate transfiguration, a “transcending of the dark period of the ’80s”—if not for most of the mine’s Black employees.

When Black leaders stepped into formerly white roles, some even seemed to develop the same kind of loathing for poorer Black people that apartheid-era white leaders had evinced. Sometimes their white colleagues implicitly required it of them. Other times, it was a layer of defense against a deeper fear that their position was tenuous, based on luck, or that they’d chosen an unscrupulous path.

A Black farmer I knew told me he thought small Black-owned farms were an embarrassment. When the farmers struggled with their irrigation pivots, they seemed to prove what he’d felt hell-bent on disproving: that Black people could not compete with white people. Fifteen years after apartheid’s end, he said he’d come to prefer white people: “Multimillionaire white guys have been my leaders, in terms of mentorship.” We were speaking on his farm, and he gestured backwards to a herd of sheep. “In fact, I have decided, now, to say thank you to apartheid. It is because of apartheid that I am where I am today.” For him, looking down on other Black people became a way of distinguishing himself as worthy of his success—and a way, oddly, of showing that he had not been broken by his tormentors, that they hadn’t succeeded in provoking him into racial resentment. For him, agreeing with white people’s judgment of Black people could feel like a way of seizing power back from them, after they did so much to inspire his hatred.

Police brutality doesn’t always—or even most commonly—arise from racism. Different countries have different cultures of police brutality that may entail complexities other than race. But in South Africa, as in America, police brutality and racism are intimately linked.

Recently, the law professor Isy India Thusi interviewed Black South African police officers. Afterward, she wrote, “I was surprised to learn that many of them look back at apartheid with nostalgia, as a time when police had more absolute power to use force and ‘be police.’” South African society turned out to have a set of concepts about what the “police” are—among them, that they are rough. That when people don’t like you, that’s wrong, and you have to show them who’s boss. That strong officers aren’t afraid to shoot.

These scripts were introduced to South African society to uphold white supremacy. But those who continue to perform them don’t have to be white. Think of these scripts as an operating manual. You don’t need to have built the machine to operate it, to look at the manual and follow the instructions. The whole point of these scripts—these social mores, these institutional traditions—is to prevent every new generation from having to build cultures from scratch.

Complex, inherited ideas about power and internalized racism could easily lead Black cops to kill a Black man. If you believe that traditions can provide a strong scaffolding for many generations to live by, then you must believe that they have the power to persist beyond a particular cohort. And you also must recognize that traditions we have attempted to discard after discerning their injustice will likely, too, be heritable and persistent.