Jeremy Vearey, Into Dark Water: A Police Memoir (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021)

THIS is a curate’s egg of a book. Correctly sub-titled as memoir, it is the work of a former MK soldier and ANC intelligence operative who became of one of South Africa’s best-known and arguably most controversial police officers. It is written with a strange mixture of macho bravura, allusions to alcoholism (now resolved), and a good dose of common sense.

Jeremy Vearey grew up in Elsies River, Cape Town. After a stint on Robben Island he served as bodyguard to Nelson Mandela and eventually found himself as station commander on his home turf. In the meantime, he had returned as a police officer to the station where he had been detained and assaulted; and experienced the challenge of organisational integration with former sworn enemies. In 1987 he was a terrorist; by 1995 a senior officer in charge of security police who had sent him to the Island.

Vearey has spent much of his career dealing with gangs, the scourge of Cape Town. In prison he learned the argot of the infamous numbers gangs; at police college he trained as a detective; and in MK and with the British SAS he acquired military skills. ­­­One of his toughest targets was PAGAD, a community activist organisation turned terrorist group that assassinated a magistrate (in 2000) before it was finally rolled up. Seventy-seven successful prosecutions resulted in sentences totalling 790 years. Vearey makes the point, of particular resonance at the moment, that vigilantes can be as problematic as gangs.

The management philosophy adopted at Elsies River police station shows Vearey to be a man of action rather than vision, ready to listen to everyone, and committed to an outcomes-based approach that he learned looking after his father’s pigs. He describes community involvement against crime and going out on night-time foot patrols with local residents. In Mitchells Plain action against gangs involved removal of graffiti, searches of schools, youth activity such as marching competitions, and a safe house network. Vearey warns, however, of the downside of neighbourhood watch such as vigilantism and illegality. With FeesMustFall he advocated constructive engagement.

The deficiencies of the South African Police Service (SAPS) are well-known and frequently demonstrated. Vearey was suspended from 2002 to 2003 and alludes to plotting and intrigue that could be due to old animosities, ethnicity, or political factionalism akin to gang warfare. This book provides no definite answer, but it does clearly show that some highly unsuitable individuals have been promoted in the SAPS and instilled bad practice. General Mzwandile Petros, for instance, is described as a bully who shuffled staff and massaged statistics, reducing policing to ‘quantitative outputs’ (p. 107).  It appears that his attention was given to interpersonal conflict rather than organised crime; tending towards denialism that encouraged an operations-driven, ad hoc approach rather than one based on sound intelligence and good strategy.

One of South Africa’s major problems is the intersection and overlap of politics and organised crime. This is most clearly evident in the key department of crime intelligence. Its failings were all too obvious during the July 2021 attempted insurrection. Vearey points to the surfeit of misinformation and he was a victim of the so-called journalism of the Sunday Times. In the Western Cape crime intelligence officers are in league with gangs.    

This is a highly personal and individualistic account by a strong and intriguing character. He has a good sense of humour and an eye for a story. Sent to Transkei to investigate dagga cultivation, he spotted plants growing on police station property. Asked for an explanation, an officer commented that the wind constantly blew seeds over the wall. Vearey has had no hesitation in confronting both the old guard and the new; and in ploughing his own furrow he has been targeted by both. Yet there is precious little analysis in this book about where the rot lies in the SAPS. He has a nice turn of phrase and could have employed it to his readers’ advantage in providing a more detailed explanation as an insider. That, it seems, must be left to journalists on the outside.