People with tattoos “have a tendency of being gangsters.”
This sentiment was publicly expressed by police minister Bheki Cele earlier this year, when explaining why the police do not hire candidates who have tattoos.
The application form to become an officer asks about tattoos, and states that the tattoo you possess shouldn’t be irreconcilable with SAPS. Having a gang number, or something deemed derogatory permanently on your body is supposedly in direct conflict with what SAPS does – fight crime.
However, the history of the relationship between our country’s police force and our people has never been a trusting one. The police force we know today was founded over 100 years ago, meaning the origins of the force come from a time of armies and war.
As the country developed politically, economically and socially, the police evolved with it. With the duty of the police force being to uphold the law, the police deployed during apartheid fulfilled their task of preserving the destructive and oppressive laws of the time.
For many people in our country, the police represent a cruel system, one that places violence and fear in the name of the law above the value of human life and dignity.
Apartheid existed only too recently, and the devastating effects are still felt everywhere in our country. The gang culture of our country was born out of a violent regime and people’s need for survival, and right now acts as one of the police force’s biggest oppositions, especially in the Western Cape.
It is true to say that many gang members have tattoos, but one aspect of a person does not permit anyone to create an entire harmful narrative around who that person may then be, and what they are allowed to belong to.
Tattoos are often a signifier of identity, but it feels obvious to remember that a person’s identity is far more complex and multi-faceted than having a single thing representing their entire being. The intersection of identities is something extremely normal and varied in South Africa, and it is ignorant to assume that people can only belong to one way of existing.
Our identities are made up of history, both individual and communal. And a tattoo may make up a part of one’s identity, but it does not define an entire person.
Joshua Obaray, a University Estate man, had a dream to join the South African Police Service and help fight crime in his community, but was barred from joining SAPS when they discovered the tattoo on his forearm in August this year.
Obaray told News24 that he was transparent about his tattoo – a depiction of a forest and a city in the shape of a guitar. But when he arrived for the psychometric assessment, his hopes were abruptly crushed.
“Before even writing the test, they asked who had tattoos and about 12 of [us who] indicated that we have tattoos were put in a room and a Colonel came into the room and the first thing he asked us is, ‘What did police minister Bheki Cele say?’ The applicants replied that if you have tattoos you’re a gangster. And then the Colonel told us ‘You see, he said it, not me’ and then he explained that for the summer uniform your tattoo should not be visible.”
Obaray explains the frustration applicants felt. They had travelled far just to be given that news, even though they stipulated in the application before being invited to the test that they had tattoos.
“One girl only had a tattoo of a bracelet around her wrist, and she was sent home as well.”
Obaray serves as a Woodstock Community Policing Forum (CPF) member and is currently a member of the neighbourhood watch, as he is passionate about fighting crime.
“I do understand that they have certain rules, but a tattoo of a guitar and a forest in a city cannot be irreconcilable with the police, in my opinion. I feel like they are being a bit too strict.”
Obaray disagrees with the police’s recruitment policy that members should “not have a tattoo which will be visible if the person wears a uniform,” as he explains that people who have a “passion for crime fighting” are excluded from the process simply because they have a tattoo.
He raises an important point in saying that he doesn’t believe “it’s going to affect our ability to be professional. I understand where they come from in being presentable, but there are always ways of working around things like that.”
With crime spiking across our nation, and the dynamic between people and the police being so broken, turning away applicants adds an unnecessary obstacle in the context of larger issues, or at least, addressing the need for more capable members in the force.
The dangerous sentiment “if you have tattoos you’re a gangster” also represents harmful stereotypes and a destructive attitude from the South African Police Service – a government unit with the supposed intention to protect people.
Rather than invalidating an entire group of people based on their body ink, the police force should be focusing on why gangsterism exists in the first place, and what they are doing to feed into the environment in which gangs thrive.