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From General to Commissioner to General—On the Popular State of Policing in South Africa


  • Julia Hornberger PhD

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    • Julia Hornberger (PhD) is a Senior Researcher at the Chair of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Konstanz. She is also a research affiliate at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) of the University of the Witwatersrand, and a coconvenor of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC). The writing of this article has been made possible thanks to the SPP 1448 Grant by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The author thanks Bea Jauregui for inspiring her to write this article and Hylton White for his insightful comments.


Less than two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa is witnessing a range of policy interventions that almost iconoclastically challenge the premises of democratic governance. Police military ranks have been reintroduced and an exemplary postapartheid law governing the use of lethal force has also been amended in favor of police discretion. Simultaneously, however, community policing, a benchmark for democratic policing, is being rolled out on unprecedented scale. This article argues that the seemingly contradictory mobilization of militarized policing and popular civilian institutional forms has a definite logic and captures the postcolonial condition of policing in South Africa: a populist-oriented ANC administration has allowed practices of popular policing underwritten by a desire for a forceful state to capture the law that had previously restrained this kind of policing. The result is a violent but intimate relationship between police and people, a situation in which the law is estranged from itself and normalized into the informal realm of private policing.