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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I want to see razor wire become a museum exhibit

It is time we stop our country following the crumbly trail of Africa.

Our local Community Police Forum (CPFs) asked me to speak at their AGM, and wanted me to propose a topic. I said I’d like to address why, in this crime-obsessed society, the annual meeting of a police precinct containing some 50 000 adult people would not have more than 0.03% attendance.

I got keen on that question, as I thought round it, and I’d like to submit a condensed version of the speech:

* * * * *

Riparile, goeie naand, molweni, shalom, namaste, sanibonani, goeie naand, dumelang, salaam aleikom and good evening. When CPFs came in 15 years ago, this was wonderful exciting new-age new-world empowering news. Imagine, we the mere people could actually meet the police, be involved, influence them.

At an early CPF function I shared a platform with Mary Metcalf. Mary – herself a wondrous phenomenon, ordinary person became a high-ranking policymaker – had a firm message: Carpe Diem, seize the day. The time had come, she said. This was the Carpe Diem era.

I was on a CPF for a while. I didn’t see a lot of Diems getting Carp├ęd. I heard a term called “Area”, being in-group shorthand for “Area Commissioner”. Whenever we raised a suggestion for the police to do (as opposed to suggestions for us to do, such as repaint the station, again) the answer was “no, Area’s orders are…” We could talk to the police, but it was Area that got heard.

We the people mainly got our knuckles rapped, every meeting. We were still forgetting to lock our car doors. We were still leaving our gates unlocked. We were still leaving our alarms switched off. We were a delinquent public; tsk!

This switched me off. I don’t want a society where I’m okay if I have great security. I want a society where I’m so okay that I need no security. When I was a child, gates and fences were waist high. You could sit on your stoep and greet people walking by. I want that again. I want to see razor wire become a museum exhibit.

I know I am not acquiring that tomorrow. I know it’s not top of the police agenda today. But it must be part of what the CPF and the police are about. If your vision is to mitigate extremes of badness while taking basic badness as for granted forever, you lose me.

But that is not what keeps 49 850 people away from this hall tonight. What is it that does keep them away? I offer one big unhesitant enormous bald-statement categorical answer, and then I tentatively, deferentially ask some polite questions.

The big answer is this: that all or nearly all local community endeavours are eternally under-supported is because they don’t have power.

Some of you know that I have, since Noah was a baby, been punting a notion of an upgraded democracy where the people actually “rule”, as the branding claims. I am not going to fling that at you now – be relieved – but I am firmly say that to the next generation, or the one after, the notion of local communities sharing power with national parliament will be as self-evident as shrink-wrapped cheese or twist-off beers are to us, causing (i) a more contented nation and (ii) CPF-type activities never again wringing hands and wishing the hall was fuller.


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