Sullen young men sit on cracked plastic chairs in a tavern in Diepsloot, a vast impoverished township on the northern outskirts of the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.
They suck on big brown bottles of beer. The air is thick with cigarette smoke and suspicion.
The youths stare at a man in white sneakers, black jeans and a blue tracksuit top.
The man, a local member of the South African Police Service, says he remembers being called to the bar a few weeks ago. He points to a spot on the stained floor and recalls the body, a scarlet stream flowing from a gaping wound in the victim’s neck.
"Every single shift, I’m facing very difficult situations where I can see people being killed, in a pool of blood," he says.
Murder, rape and violent robbery happen every day in Diepsloot, and residents accuse the police of failing to protect them from the criminals.
The officer, unnamed by VOA to protect his identity and his job, says the township is the most "dangerous, evil" place he’s ever worked.
He adds that the congested area, with its 600,000 residents who mostly live in a sprawling maze of shacks made from scrap metal and wood, is the "perfect hideout" for criminals. Every day, says the policeman, people from all over the country and the continent arrive in Diepsloot to take advantage of its "unregulated atmosphere" and "lax" law.
'I am like a machine'
Inside the shabby bar, the officer watches men arguing over a game of pool. It’s a cold night, but a woman hunched in a corner is dressed only in a white bra and brown shorts. She coughs through rotten teeth and her eyes roll in her head.
The cop says all the violence he’s seen in Diepsloot over the years has numbed him. He says, "When I am on duty, I am like a machine."
"Even when they’re shooting, the gunshots, I don't feel anything because I’m used to this place. I don’t feel anything," he mumbles.
He acknowledges that criminals are the "true rulers" of Diepsloot, because "they are many and the police are few."
"They shoot; when they see the police, they shoot.… They sometimes shoot our vehicles," the policeman says.
Frustration bubbles from his mouth when he seethes, "I don’t know why police carry firearms anymore because the law is for the criminals and is against us. Our hands are tied! Because you can’t just shoot. You must wait for them to shoot and then you can shoot."
By that time, he maintains, the police officers are wounded or dead. He says he’s watched criminals kill "more than a few" colleagues in recent years.
The officer always carries his gun, even when off duty, because thugs often approach him on the street. He tells of a recent confrontation with one of Diepsloot’s gangsters.
"He told me that I once arrested him and I pointed [at] him with a firearm. They always threaten us! They know our cars.… Anything can happen. That’s it; there’s nothing I can do. I’ve been attacked before."
But the community doesn’t have much sympathy for police officers – not when the people themselves are under siege from criminals who murder, rob and rape them with seeming impunity.
Anger at the police
The cop patrols a street packed with taxis and pedestrians.
A cacophony of music blares from shops selling everything from fried chicken feet and heads, to pornographic DVDs and fake branded clothing from China.
Inside one of the stores, Peter Ndlozi hisses in disgust at the mention of the police. His is a typical attitude among Diepsloot residents toward the officers who should be protecting them.
"Around here, the police [are] not working," Ndlozi says. The police were "good before but not now."
Like many of the township's inhabitants, Ndlozi says the police "hardly ever come" when they’re called to a crime scene. And, if they do, they demand bribes to investigate.
In Diepsloot, frustrated and angry residents no longer wait for the police to arrest alleged criminals. They often corner the suspects themselves and bludgeon and burn them to death.
Says the local policeman: "They feel like the police are not doing their job. We are trying to do our job; we are trying the best we can. But with the shortage of members [and] resources, that’s where we fail."
No police station; few cops
A huge police station built in Diepsloot five years ago is empty. Government officials say the state has failed to staff it because of "administrative chaos" and corruption involving its construction.
The Diepsloot police are thus forced to work from a small, cramped temporary office.
The police officer says the rapidly expanding township is hardly ever patrolled by more than two vehicles and four officers, making it "impossible" for the cops to enforce law and order.
Community journalist Golden Mtika agrees.
"I wouldn’t put much of the blame on the police, because I’ve worked very closely with these guys and I can see that they are understaffed," he says. "These guys are under pressure, seriously under pressure."
Burned alive if he shoots
Excited young men in a black car blasting music drive past the police officer. They glare at him. He just shrugs and rattles off details of all the mob murders he’s seen.
He says the few police at such scenes "can’t do anything" to stop the rampaging crowds as they exact brutal revenge on people who are often innocent of any crime.
"If you start to shoot, how many people are you going to shoot?" the officer asks, mentioning mobs of more than 500. "You’ve got only a pistol. How many people are you going to shoot with 15 rounds? If you start to shoot, you will be burned also! These people, they are not scared of these firearms. They know you won’t shoot them."
The cop says he understands why the community takes the law into its own hands. He emphasizes that the police are "just as angry" as the residents, because both South Africa’s policing and judicial systems are failing.
That’s why criminals are Diepsloot’s overlords, he maintains.
"There’s nothing you can do. You arrest that person and tomorrow morning or next week he’s out on bail doing the same crimes. He can come to your house and kill you anytime," says the despondent, "demotivated" policeman.
No desire to be a ‘dead cop’
A police car speeds out of Diepsloot’s temporary police station. The policeman looks into the blue sky, at a helicopter on its way to a crime scene in another part of Johannesburg.
Hated by criminals and by the people he tries to protect, with his life in constant peril, why does he remain a police officer?
He smiles wanly, sighs and says simply: "I love being a cop. But I don’t love working in Diepsloot."
He’s applied time and again to be transferred elsewhere. He says he must leave Diepsloot as soon as possible, because what use will he be to anyone as a "dead cop?"
The police officer says his greatest wish is to make a difference in South Africa’s ongoing war against crime.
"I want to stop criminals before they commit crimes. But here in Diepsloot, there is no fight against crime," he says. "Here, all we do is take victim statements, file reports, clean up blood, pick up bodies. Here, you feel useless as a cop because we have not got the means to prevent crime."