Ian Cameron, 32, – the man who last week made headlines after he was forced out of a community meeting in Gugulethu, Cape Town, when he interrupted Police Minister Bheki Cele – simply doesn’t believe policing will improve under the ANC. “A few years ago I thought there were still good people in the ANC. But I must be honest; I think the ANC is an inherently corrupt organisation. I think they’ve become cancer to South Africa,” he says in an Afrikaans accent at the start of the virtual interview.
He has just returned to his home in Paarl from Cape Town, a roughly 45-minute drive, where he has been meeting with a number of local government leaders following his altercation with Cele, where the minister told him to “shut up”.
Cameron, who once served as head of community safety at controversial minority rights lobby group AfriForum and studied police science at the University of South Africa (Unisa), doesn’t mince his words as he speaks about the state of policing, or the state of the governing party.
At AfriForum, he saw over 3 000 farm murder cases – often brutal – and through his current work as the director for community safety at Action Society, he’s dealt with hundreds of murder and assault cases on the Cape Flats.
“I don’t think the police can ever be fixed with any ANC influence. I think corruption in the ANC is so incredibly deeply rooted that, no matter who from the ANC is put into the police somewhere, there is going to be an influence to deter investigation or justice.
“I honestly think that’s one reason they don’t want the police to function properly is that many of them will be caught out for wrongdoing. And I think that’s why bodies like the Scorpions were closed down. I think that’s why bodies like the Hawks don’t function the way they should.”
And what does this mean for ordinary South Africans who have to wait until 2024, when a coalition government might replace the governing party? Cameron quickly says it is not to become despondent but to become even more active in communities.
“On the one side, we have to take part politically; I encourage people to participate and vote. You have to exhaust all the remedies you have at your disposal.
“But along with that,” he says, adjusting his earphones, “I think it’s crucial to get involved with civil society organisations somehow, whether it’s a cleanup group in your community, literally cleaning up the streets, picking up rubbish, sweeping, fixing potholes, and making sure those who don’t have water in the community have water.”
And finally, in terms of crime, he says more and more people should become involved in neighbourhood watches.
“I’ve seen it before, where neighbourhood watches are very active, violence is decreased. It does make a difference.”
Behind Cameron in his study in Paarl, large framed photographs can be seen of crime scenes or community safety events he has attended through the years.
He leans back in his chair and says the incident with the minister in Gugulethu last week “exposed” Cele “as someone who has lost touch with reality”.
“And he’s also exposed the reason why the South African Police Services is in such bad shape. I mean, in Soweto, he talks about tattoos and gangsters. My goodness, some of the best cops I’ve known in South Africa and in other countries are ones with tattoos.”
Compelled to speak
The South African Police Service (SAPS) has encountered a difficult few weeks with a spate of tavern shootings, in which at least 20 people were killed, among rising levels of gender-based violence and murder in the country.
In response to calls for harsher gun legislation, Cameron, who founded Firearms.co.za, says South Africa’s problem isn’t gun legislation, but instead the number of illegal firearms in the country, including the thousands lost by police every year.
Cameron, whose wife felt the need to pray for him before he went to the meeting in Gugulethu last week Tuesday because she had “a funny feeling”, says he didn’t at first intend to attend the meeting but felt it was important as he was assisting in a number of murder cases on the Cape Flats.
Ian Cameron (Photo: Jaco Marais)
Through Action Society, Cameron helps victims and their families with feedback from the state when there isn’t progress on a matter, and also assists in the prosecution to help ensure dockets are prepared as well as possible.
He says he wasn’t planning on speaking, but after the first round of ten speakers – who Cameron says had “more hectic things to say” to the minister – he felt compelled to address the derogatory things the minister had said about neighbourhood watches and the Metro police service. Cameron had helped launch over 150 neighbourhood watches with 12 500 volunteers during his time at AfriForum.
“I thought to myself, you know, the majority of the people involved in those neighbourhood watches are women above 50. They are unarmed and untrained. Many of them don’t even have torches. And they walk the streets of some of the most dangerous places in the world to try and keep people alive.”
In Cameron’s filmed remarks, he is heard saying:
“I am tired of the excuses, I am tired of you making this a political thing. None of these people here tonight, when they see their neighbours slaughtered on the streets, worry about your nonsense comments about the Constitution and about the devolution. They worry about surviving, sir.”
Cameron received loud applause from the audience at the gathering itself, and on social media and his remarks went viral, with many praising him for his honesty.
But, in his closing remarks, Cele implied Cameron thought he was a garden boy, to which Cameron objected. Cele called on Cameron to “shut up” before he was escorted out of the meeting.
In a tweet, Cele’s spokesperson Lirandzu Themba said Cameron was removed after “repeatedly interrupting the meeting despite being given a fair chance to raise his concerns prior.”
Police thanking him
Cameron, who has since laid a complaint with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) against the police officers who removed him for misconduct, says the police haven’t officially reached out to him since the incident.
“But,” he says smiling, “I find it interesting that all the different police stations I’ve visited since, [that] there are quite a few police members have thanked me. And they are outspoken about how frustrated they are with bad leadership, and corrupt leadership, how frustrated they are with political interference and how frustrated they are with the derogatory way in which minister Cele speaks to them and speaks down to them.”
And laughing, Cameron says he, his wife and two young children were nearly unable to eat when they visited the local Spur over the weekend as everyone wanted a selfie with him. “It’s crazy how the news spread”.
Ian Cameron, his wife Carla, and their daughter, Jana. (Photo: Elizabeth Sejake)
Born in Kempton Park, Gauteng, Cameron says he has always had a “massive thing” for the police, having had a great-grandfather, an aunt and two uncles who were police officers.
As he plugs in his computer to charge out of fear for loadshedding, he says:
“I actually have a lot of time for police officers. And it really breaks me to see the conditions they work in, especially in rural and very poor areas.”
“You get to some of those police stations, and they don’t have decent chairs to sit on. This last week, quite a few of the stations I’ve visited don’t even have toilet seats for the female toilets.”
“I would have probably joined as well if it wasn’t in such bad shape. The police is just not an attractive employer.”
He moved with his parents – his dad was a chemical engineer for Sasol and his mom a nurse – to England for six years before he came back in 2005 to finish his schooling in Johannesburg and soon started working for AfriForum.
As his rescue border collie, Ben, comes to seek attention, Cameron says a “dramatic change” occurred in his life in 2010 when he was at university and his drink was spiked.
“I became very, very sick from it. It was a very potent drug of some sort to the point where I literally had withdrawal symptoms for a few days afterwards. It caused me to suffer quite hectic anxiety at that stage because of the withdrawal.
“And yeah, it was a very dark time for me. So that’s when things really changed for me in terms of faith, and that’s when I became a believer.”
He says he has often received criticism for it, but these days he believes “your faith should influence your culture”, not the other way around.
A stubborn person
And while he admits he can be a stubborn person (“My wife nails me for it every single day”), he does believe he has grown since he first started work in community safety.
“I’ve also experienced my fair share of exposure to violent crime across the spectrum in South Africa. And, I think that’s made me also think of different approaches to try and solve it.”
“And, I think at the moment, especially in the South African context, you know, unnecessarily having conflict, which might have actually helped in the past; I think we are [in] a time where we really need to make a plan to turn things around.”
And as he prepares to leave for his next meeting, I ask what lies ahead for him in the years ahead.
To help address the high levels of crime – particularly gender-based violence – in South Africa, he says, adding the challenge for him will be to stay positive.
One of the reasons for leaving AfriForum in 2020 was because the violent nature of the crimes he worked with started taking a toll on his mental health.
“It’s important to be able to look around you and spend time with people that remind you that there are good things as well. Everything’s not always bad wherever you go.”
He smiles softly and says the incident in Gugulethu, for example, reminded him of the good in the world.
“When the police just confronted me on the inside, when I went back and watched the videos of it, I saw an old gogo is sitting next to me holding my hand.
“You know, and it’s those things that inspire you to stay positive and to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”