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Jonny Steinberg PDF Print E-mail

Jonny Steinberg (1970 - ) is a South African writer and scholar. In the mid-1990s he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford University's Balliol college, from which he graduated with a doctorate in political theory. He returned to South Africa in 1998 and worked for the national daily newspaper Business Day, writing on the Constitutional Court and the police. He left Business Day to write the book Midlands, which explores racial conflict in the post-apartheid countryside through an account of an unsolved murder.

In 2003, Midlands received South Africa's most prestigious literary prize, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. Two years later Steinberg repeated this feat when his second book, The Number, a social history of crime and punishment in Cape Town written in the form of a biography of a prison gangster, received the same award. Midlands also received the National Booksellers' Choice award in 2003. Both books are published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Steinberg published three books in 2008. The first was titled Sizwe’s Test and was published in the US by Simon and Schuster.  The second, titled Three-Letter Plague was published in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers, and explores the ways in which the arrival of antiretroviral drugs in an Eastern Cape village infiltrates the life of a successful young shopkeeper. The book was published in the UK and in Italy in 2009. The third book published in 2008 is called Thin Blue, also published by Jonathon Ball Publishers, and it is about police on the streets of Johannesburg.

A selection of Steinberg’s columns in Business Day, titled Notes from a Fractured Country, was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2007.

Steinberg has published a number of monographs and research papers on South Africa's criminal justice system for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. He has edited two books on contemporary South Africa: From Comrades to Citizens (with Glen Adler), published by Routledge in 2000, and Crime Wave: The South African Underworld and its Foes, published by Wits University Press in 2001. His latest book, A Man of Good Hope, was released in 2015 and became a critical and commercial success. It was adapted for stage in 2016 by Isango Ensemble and directed by Mark Domford-May.

Steinberg currently teaches African Studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.


Consider these two incidents. They took place on the same day, in the same town, and involved the same two police officers.

The town was the old mining settlement of Randfontein, about 40 kilometres west of downtown Johannesburg. The policing sector was Toekomsrus, Randfontein’s coloured township. And the shift was Saturday night – 6 pm to 6 am – one of the busiest and most difficult times for township cops, for about a third of their weekly crime load is packed into these 12 hours.

Toekomsrus is home to some 30 000 people. It is one of those inward-turned spaces the apartheid government built for black and coloured people in the early 1970s; concentric layers of crescent-shaped streets, the outermost layer, Diamant Street, forming a closed circle around the periphery of the township.

Deep within Toekomsrus’s inner layers are two shebeens. By nine or ten o’clock on a Saturday night, each has attracted a clientele of a good 500 people, few of them older than 30. They spill out onto the street in dense clusters, blocking passing traffic, making the public space around the shebeen their own.

Soon after the 6 pm shift began, the officers with whom I was riding along, Constables K and N, attended to a minor traffic accident on a regional artery that nudges the southwestern corner of their jurisdiction. There was some friction between the two parties involved, but nothing that required a police officer’s intervention. Constables K and N’s role was mechanical and bureaucratic; they did the necessary paperwork, issued advice on claiming for insurance, waited until both parties had left the scene, and then got into their van and drove off.

The radio was silent for the better part of the next hour. We circled the township over and again, tracing a wide arc around it, seldom venturing much deeper into Toekomsrus than Diamant Street.

Constables K and N had a new device in their car. When they found themselves within five kilometres of a vehicle whose satellite tracker had been activated, signalling that it had just been stolen, the vehicle’s number plate flashed on a small monitor on their dashboard. A bar on the side of the screen told them how far they were from the vehicle.

At about 7.30 pm, the constables’ monitor flashed a number plate at them. Both immediately snapped out of the lethargy of their early Saturday evening routine. Constable N sat up ramrod straight in the passenger seat. Constable K began fiddling with the display on the vehicle tracer, as if it were a poorly tuned radio. Ostensibly, the constables were minutes away from pursuing a car full of armed men.

They followed the signal. Doing so was a process of trial and error: it required a lot of reversing and turning around; you drive, you watch the bar on the side of the monitor, you see whether it is getting longer or shorter.

Within about 15 minutes, the vehicle tracer had put us on a road on the outskirts of Randfontein, the patrol van’s nose pointing into an open field. On the other side of the field, perhaps 250 metres away, was the Soweto car pound, temporary home to several hundred scrapped motor vehicles. The bar on the side of the screen told us that the vehicle in question was 250 metres away. It could not possibly have been to the left or the right of us, nor behind, since we had explored in all of those directions already. The car we were looking for was without question directly in front of us, in the pound. The tracking service had surely forgotten to turn the signal off. It was a false alarm.

Constables K and N were undeterred. In their two-wheel-drive sedan, they mounted the pavement and drove into the darkness of the field. As we blundered along, our heads hitting the ceiling of the patrol van, its headlights pointing now at the treetops, now at the ground, what the constables were doing became abundantly clear: they were avoiding the inner rings of Toekomsrus.

Just over halfway through the shift, I discovered why.

Having been dispatched to three domestic violence complaints during the course of the night, a call of a different order came over the radio at about 12.30 am. A man had phoned the station to report that his son had taken his bakkie without his permission, that the vehicle had been spotted outside one of the township’s two shebeens, and that he wanted it back.

If Constables K and N felt fear or discomfort at this news, they did not show it. They drove to the shebeen, nudged the drinkers in the street out of their way with their front bumper, spotted the bakkie that was the subject of the complaint, and parked directly behind it. They then walked into the shebeen, and returned a few minutes later with the young man in question.

The crowds of shebeen patrons minded their business all the while. The cops seemed invisible to them. They were scattered across the street and on the pavements and in the shebeen yard in dense clumps, like a massive, rowdy meeting that had broken into small groups to discuss a matter at hand.

The constables got back into their van and waited for the youngster to get into his father’s bakkie. He didn’t. He stood in a huddle with some other young men; their conference lasted quite a while. Constable K hit the patrol van’s hooter in irritation, and the huddle imme-
diately dispersed; half a dozen youngsters climbed into the back of the bakkie, the last one into the driver’s seat. They drove off, and we followed.

A few hundred metres from the shebeen, the bakkie turned into a vacant field and stopped. The constables followed, then flashed their lights, then hooted. The bakkie remained stationary, and the young men remained on the back, absorbed in a loud and voluble conversation, as if the constables were not there at all.

K and N got out of their van and walked towards the bakkie. The youngsters kept ignoring them. And then the constables crossed some invisible line between their own vehicle and the bakkie, and the young men sprang to life, nimble and fast, like a six-bodied machine awoken by a switch, and within seconds they had left the bakkie and arranged themselves into a tight, menacing circle around the cops.

One of them pointed at Constable K and began to scream. He was no more than 5ft 6in and quite slight, but he stood there with feet wide apart, his mouth just a few inches from Constable K’s, and his confidence gave him all the stature he needed. His nostrils flared, his eyes bulged, and his pelvis thrust itself intermittently at Constable K, as if his body willed violence, only his self-discipline holding him in check. He spoke very fast in a colloquial Afrikaans to which I was not accustomed, and it took some time for it to dawn on me that he was threatening to kill Constable K’s children. He named them both, named their primary school, shouted out that he knew school ended at twenty past one every week day except Wednesdays, when it ended at quarter to one.

I lost my bearings: the shock of this sudden assault disorientated me, and for some time I was groundless, unable to read the meaning of the situation, or to predict the course it might take. And then it came to me slowly that the encounter was not emitting enough energy, not as much as it should have were it truly unstable. In retrospect, I would understand that it was in fact tightly choreographed, that all of its participants knew precisely how it would proceed and how it would end. The central question was one of numbers, and an anticipation of how the balance of numbers was set to change in the minutes to follow.



2002. Midlands. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2004. The Number: One man's search for identity in the Cape underworld and prison gangs. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2007. Notes from a Fractured Country. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2008. Sizwe's Test. New York: Simon and Schuster.

2008. Three-Letter Plague. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2008. Thin Blue. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2011. Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

2015. A Man of Good Hope. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.