It was a few days before Christmas and the urge to work was at an annual low point among the detectives of the General Investigation Unit at Johannesburg Central Police Station. Like most South Africans, they were winding down, the holidays were nearing, and whatever was unfinished might as well wait for next year. Some had already left for vacations or family visits. Those working over the festive season were silently expressing their disgruntlement by doing their work extremely slowly. Sergeant Klopper, who had only recently been transferred from the station’s

Serious Crime Unit to the General Investigation Unit, had not really planned on working that day. She was there to meet a former colleague, Inspector Swanepoel, who had been transferred to a special anti-corruption unit in Pretoria. They had agreed that she could use his police car while he was on leave. They had worked closely together in the past and a strong bond of friendship between them was immediately apparent. While Sergeant Klopper was seeing the unit commander, and I was

drinking coffee and chatting with Inspector Swanepoel about his move to Pretoria, a woman came to the office with her baby on her back. She asked shyly if we knew where she could find Detective Marais. I had to disappoint her with the news that he was on leave and would only return in mid-January. She was already turning around to leave when Inspector Swanepoel asked if

he could help her. The woman, named Peggy, explained that she had a ‘pointing out note’ for a man who rented some space in the flat where she lived. She had opened a case against this man after he had threatened her with a firearm.1 This man was now at the premises and she was hoping that Sergeant Marais would finally arrest him. Somewhat to my surprise, Inspector Swanepoel decided that he and Sergeant

Klopper should pursue the case and arrest the man. When Sergeant Klopper returned, she was also surprised at Inspector Swanepoel’s response. But she immediately agreed, perhaps because she wanted to show him that she was a dedicated police officer even though she no longer worked for the Serious Crime Unit. Soon Peggy was sitting with me in the back of an unmarked police car giving directions to her flat on Bree Street, one of the most densely populated sections of the inner city. The high-rise apartment building we entered was untended and dilapidated. The lift did not work, and we had to climb the stairs to the tenth floor. Out of breath on arrival, we found ourselves in a two-roomed apartment

that had been turned into a warren of sleeping and living quarters, subdivided by large pieces of cloth. We were interrupting the morning routines of several women and children, who were getting dressed and cleaning up. Peggy, full of determination, led the two detectives straight to the alleged suspect, Sam Dhlamini, whom they found still in bed. Inspector Swanepoel arrested him in a straightforward and authoritative manner, reading him his rights while handcuffing him and leaving no room for negotiation. Once Sam had been pulled out of bed to change into his trousers, Sergeant Klopper lifted the mattress and found a loaded gun underneath. The detectives directed a host of questions at Sam: why did he have a loaded gun lying around? Didn’t he know that he should keep his gun in a safe place, especially when children were around? Didn’t he know this was enough to send him to jail and to cancel his firearm licence, if he even had one? While this exchange demanded the detectives’ full attention, I was witnessing

a different scene going on between Peggy and the suspect’s girlfriend. More outraged than intimidated by the arrest of Sam, the girlfriend started a fight with Peggy, whom she viewed as the main culprit for the arrest. She began in an African language and then suddenly switched to English. I heard her shout at Peggy: ‘So, you damn bitch, you called your police to help you to throw us out of this house! But this is our place and you will regret this, because I will now call my police! You will see what comes from this … don’t you think that we don’t have our own police?’. Peggy kept quiet and shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of dismissal.