Corruption and crime are commonplace and drug dealing is a fact of life on Ontdekkers Road in Johannesburg, South Africa. Award-winning journalist Paul McNally’s new book, The Street, tells the stories of local residents: Raymond, a business owner who confronts the issue, weapon in hand; Khaba, a middle-age officer coming to terms with his role in the problem and its solution; and Wendy, a reservist officer who must deal with addiction both in her profession and in her home life. World Policy Journal recently spoke with McNally to discuss the release of his book and life in Ontdekkers Road and the rest of Johannesburg.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: The Street is a story about corruption, but you present it in a unique way. By looking at it from an on-the-ground perspective, it helps show how the dynamics of corruption shape the daily lives of those affected. What made you choose this approach, and did you have any hesitations?
PAUL MCNALLY: I’m very passionate about that type of journalism. Since I was in high school, I’ve always enjoyed long-form narrative. For this kind of subject matter, especially for something like corruption, that style lends itself really well. Especially in that part of western Johannesburg, where the book is set, most of the news comes from community newspapers and community radio stations. They get a very small snippet of information and have to piece the rest together. The more I spent time at Ontdekkers Road and around the police officers, I came to realize that creating something to encompass all these people’s stories is the only way to do the subject matter justice. Otherwise, you’re offering a story that could become quite one-sided. If you’ve only written or read the first couple chapters, you’d have a very negative view of the police. Hopefully, by the end of the book, because you bring in other people’s stories, you see what the police have to go through. You can get more of a holistic view of the situation. It felt like the right way to go about it. My reservation was that when I started talking to people, even if I explained to them that I was writing a book, they’d be thinking of it in terms of just news, and just snippets. It took a bit of massaging, conversation, and negotiation with the characters in the book about how this was going to be their story. A personal point of view.
WPJ: The personal element really brings the story out. If you were to only read in broad strokes it would paint a much different picture. In the Ontdekkers Road chapter, the character Raymond, a local business owner who happens to be deeply affected by the local drug scene that takes place not far from his shop, you note that “Nigerian” has become interchangeable slang for drug dealer. How do you think the role of race plays into public perception of crime in post-apartheid South Africa, particularly as it relates to drugs?
PM: It’s interesting that the characters use that word; it was one of the first things I talked to about with my publisher. It was decided that we should keep it in because it’s a direct quote. Everyone I approached, that’s how they refer to people. Beyond being horrifically racist, it is an interesting depiction of how people “Other” that problem. I found that the perception was that people saw it as something from the outside coming in, with an attitude that if this hadn’t happened, they’d be better off. I don’t go into it that strongly in the book, but I do believe that it plays into a lot of the xenophobia and the attacks we’ve frequently had in South Africa since 2008. At first, I did find it rather distressing, and I hope that a reasonable-minded reader will find the use of that word affronting. I don’t want them to be blasé about it. I didn’t mean to overly emphasize it, but the use of “Nigi” as slang for a drug dealer shows how in this environment, particularly between the dealers and the police, certain things can be completely normalized. Even if they are abhorrent or unusual. It’s almost a shorthand to express some of the internal mechanics of the ecosystem, but also an internal language that everyone understands.
WPJ: Raymond is one of the most dynamic characters in the book; in several ways he is the catalyst for how things unfold. Do you think his willingness to directly combat the problem of the drug dealers in his neighborhood might inspire others to be less tolerant of the local drug scene?
PM: From my side, I was very inspired by his perseverance. This is the sort of thing about writing something very personal, trying to get into a character’s head. You can see his motivations are not always the heroic motivations that you would like—he is someone who is motivated by ego and a need to be included. That need to be a hero is not necessarily heroic, no matter how much their actions might seem to change. I did an interview on a community radio station not far from where the book takes place. They responded very well to that. It’s inspiring to know that some people are standing up this police in that way in those communities. They are not just standing up, but simply speaking out in any way, such as how in the book Raymond records every instance: the time, the amounts, the tracking of the police. That action in itself is incredibly inspiring for people. However, the further that people were from the area where it happens, the less inspired they were. I did a launch down in Cape Town and people weren’t quite so receptive. For people living in that structure, though, the events and the fact that there was a police officer who wasn’t corrupt was really a big thing. It touched people.
WPJ: The book really goes into the varying levels of corruption. Given the pervasive nature of the problem, what do you think is the best means to combat it? Should the issue be approached from a local level, or do you see corruption as an issue that should be taken on from a top-down approach by the government?
PM: Ideally you would want it to be top-down. In terms of President Jacob Zuma, there was a lack of leadership in South Africa. The corruption charges that have been pressed against Zuma came up a lot in the research for the book. People were saying, in essence, “Zuma’s getting what’s he getting, so I can definitely take my share.” It’s a systemic problem; it’s about discipline and accountability from the top down. But in terms of how stations function within the system, some police stations do run better than others with very small changes. As a station manager, you could introduce a lack of tolerance for small bits of corruption and that would have a knock-on effect. People feel that they can get freebies. For example, there was an instance where all the police officers got free tires. So there were about 25 free tires that got dropped off at the station for one reason or another, and then 25 officers each got a free tire for their car. That was something that wasn’t disguised, it was openly celebrated. The station manager gave out tires to everyone. That’s something that could change at a station level. The police on the provincial and national level refuse to comment on the book. There’ve been negotiations to get them to come on the radio station and comment; the spokesperson whom I’ve been in talks with has said repeatedly, “I need to protect myself from my boss.” He’s told me that even if he agrees to give comment on the radio, then that could impact his career. That’s not even for saying anything bad, that’s just for talking on the subject. So it’s easy for me to say, “Yes, you should change an individual station, the less corruption at a station level, the better.” But you see the level of scrutiny and how people are promoted to not do anything. Within the police, the people who do well just keep their heads down and aim for retirement. There is a culture of silence, unaccountability, and a lack of adequate resources—at times the only response I could get from police was when I supplied them with paper. Even if someone wanted to be a whistleblower, there wasn’t any paper in the stations available for them to print anything out. So, to the original question, I think what you want is both a case of top-down, but also bottom-up.
WPJ: The abuse of police power and the role of police intimidation play a role a role in shaping the dynamics of The Street. Did you ever worry that your relationship with Colonel Khaba [a police officer whom the author shadows throughout the book] or Raymond could have put you or them in a potentially dangerous situation? How did approaching these situations?
PM: I recognized a danger, but I never necessarily felt in danger. There was a number of instances where a police officer could have planted drugs and arrested me. That was a genuine possibility, and most people who were working with me on the book were quite surprised that that hadn’t happened. In terms of my safety, part of it was naiveté from the beginning. Once involved in the situation, you want to follow the story. It was only when the book got to print that I realized that my level of anxiety and my stress dropped from not going to these places. You just get used to it, and you don’t think about the fact that you’re stressed because you’ve been hanging out where there are drug dealers and corrupt police officers chatting in front of you. You’ve been primed to act as non-intrusively as possible while all this is going on. What actually made me keep coming back was the fact that everyone involved knew I was a journalist. It wasn’t a hidden operation. Everything was very open. The drug dealers knew that I was a journalist as well—that’s really what I have to thank Raymond for. He was very open with everyone that I was a journalist and this was happening. Part of it, from his side, was that he wanted to be the center of the story. He also wanted to protect himself. He didn’t want someone to find out I was a journalist and realize they hadn’t been told. That laid the way for me to be very open from the beginning. It’s easier said than done. The problem is that once it’s out there, it’s not just the people you meet who know. There are people who know your car who you were never introduced to. It was worrisome, but you can’t escape it; once the book is out there, that’s just part of it.
WPJ: One final question. How do you think narrative-driven journalism, which is very much a story, compares to literary fiction?
PM: No one wanted to publish my fiction. I was recently having a discussion with someone who writes crime fiction. He was saying how frustrating it can be to write fiction in South Africa because you’re got a narrative with the plot all sorted out, then something bigger or horrific will happen in the news that you were planning in your own book, and now people won’t be impressed by the event you created. It is a strange place to be. I think people are more informed on nonfiction here because they want to learn about their environment in a safe but holistic way. It’s hard to make sense of living in a place like Johannesburg because, by design, you’re living in your own little pocket of the city. It’s a car-driven, pocketed city. So people are very open to nonfiction because it allows them to open doors that they would never actually go into. In terms of comparing to fiction, I’ve become much more comfortable with being a nonfiction writer through the process of writing this book. The sad part of South African media consumption is that fiction has less of a place here, in part because it’s of little use. People like entertainment for a purpose. The urgency for education and other issues to be fixed is so high in a place like Johannesburg that people don’t feel they have the luxury of turning to fiction. From my perspective, I don’t believe that; I think you can learn plenty from fiction, but the public is more receptive to a story if you tell them it’s true. Art for use.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Stephen Barry]
[Photo courtesy of ER24 EMS (Pty) Ltd.]