Final Word

Fikile Mbalula turning the police into cops?


What should be the South African Police Service’s task really be after Police Minister, Fikile Mbalula’s, latest cutter language instructions to its members?

Mbalula told members of the SAPS not to worry about court cases. If they should break the law, they should leave the worrying about that to him, they must “squeeze balls” and, make those suspected of criminal activity “piss”, and then drink it. That, according to him is the real task of the institution which has over time, in common language, become known as “the cops.”

This is an attitude clearly out of sync with the roots of what the term police is supposed to stand for.

The term first arrived in the English language in the early 15th century, from, and exactly as it appeared in Middle French – police, for 'public order, administration, and government.' The French in turn got it from the Latin word, politia, which was a Latinisation of the Greek word politeia for ‘citizenship, administration, and civil polity’ The Greek word derived from polis, meaning city.

In English police was initially used in a range of senses encompassing 'public policy, state, and public order.' By the 1530s it was used to describe ‘the regulation and control of a community,’ by 1716 it was applied in the sense of ‘law-enforcement,’ a the first ‘police force came into existence in 1798 when the Marine Police was set up to protect merchandise at the Port of London.

The broader meaning of a "body of officers entrusted with the duty of enforcing laws, detecting crime, etc. was first recorded in 1810.

First ‘police state’

And, if your think that the concept of a police state, in the sense of power of a government to limit civil liberties and exercise restraint and compulsion over private rights by means of national police force, you are wrong. This notion was first recorded in 1865, with reference to Austria.

The book Policing and Contemporary Governance: The Anthropology of Police in Practice by W. Garriott has an interesting theory about the relationship between police and governance.

According to him, the etymology of police reveals that the two terms (governance and police) were once synonymous. He explains that the term police emerged in Western political discourse in the thirteenth century.

The lineage of the term cop, however is less clear and probably a lot less savoury than that off police, with quite a number of theories floating around.  

One group of etymologists, although mapping out different routes to the modern word, use the Latin word capere, meaning, to grab or apprehend. Although this might not be the origin of the term cop, as police officer, the meaning did get preserved in expressions like ‘cop a feel’ as in when you take your girlfriend to the drive-in.

A second group, believes the term can be traced back to the attire, or part of it, wore by the original or first, police officers/-forces. These include assertions that the first English police forces wore large copper helmets, copper buttons was part of formal uniforms – as it still is in many instances to this day – and, that badges worn by early New York police officers were made of copper.

A third theory holds that COP is an acronym for “Constable on Patrol,” hugging the famous notion about ‘police visibility’ as in the London slogan of the ‘Bobby on the street.’

The real story

 Serious, and authoritative research, however, seems indicate that the term came to English from the Dutch word kapen, meaning to take/grab or to steal – probably because a copper is one who cops/grabs wrong-doers. Cop in the sense of ‘capture’ or ‘catch’ is first recorded in 1704.

Some sources document the use of the verb "cop," used as meaning "arrest" in 1844.

Kapen is also the root of the Afrikaans term kaap for the English word hijack, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word.  

Final word

Judged on his record in his previous portfolio as Minister of Sport and Recreation, the latest allegations about the relationship between him and the supplier of sport clothing to the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, and his known love of attention via Twitter feeds, we might just be experiencing a kapen of the SAPS.

by Piet Coetzer

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