Long Read | Senzeni Na?

The South African state and the society from which it stems and governs are systemically violent. It is time to break this cycle of violence with a politics rooted in a commitment to healing.

In this moment, there is an image of a body under silver foil on De Beer Street in Braamfontein. Before that, there was the image of a Cabinet minister watching from an armoured police vehicle as the police used a water cannon on impoverished people queueing to receive their disability grants in Cape Town. Before that, there was the image of Collins Khosa posing with his car, the horror that later befell him thankfully left to the imagination.

In 2013, before all this, there was the video showing police officers dragging Mido Macia behind a police van in Daveyton. There was the massacre at Marikana in 2012, and the police murder of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg in 2011.

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But most of the relentless, everyday accumulation of state violence – and the sadism that often surrounds it – never enters the awareness of the elite public sphere. The police have killed more than 100 people participating in street protests, but it is only Tatane’s name that has thus far entered the collective memory.

The South African police kill someone every 20 hours on average, and a little less than 2.5 times more people per capita than the police in the United States. But there is no mass movement in opposition to police violence, or even sporadic eruptions of anger in the streets. Unlike in countries such as Greece, France or England, a police killing of a young man does not incite riots. The protests that followed the police murder of Nateniel Julies in Eldorado Park last year were a localised exception. In the main, it is not entirely unfair to say that South African society is largely politically quiescent when it comes to the question of state murder.

Governed with violence

State murder in South Africa has often been political and, therefore, a direct threat to democratic practices and ideals. The police murdered Michael Makhabane, a student at what was then the University of Durban-Westville, on 16 May 2000 during a protest about exclusion. It may have been the first police murder at a protest since the end of apartheid. 

Popular dissent since then has been met with a steady barrage of insult, slander, harassment, assault, arrest, torture and murder. Repression organised through the state apparatus rapidly came to be accompanied by informal forms of repression during Jacob Zuma’s period in office, including murder by izinkabi (assassins).

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Importantly, people who are not independently organised are also governed with routine violence. State violence is inevitable when impoverishment is criminalised by commodifying access to land, housing, water and electricity. Most of the major cities now have specialised armed units to carry out evictions. Violence is budgeted for via line items in spreadsheets. The steady thrum of this violence is seldom noted or recognised as violence in the elite public sphere. In fact, it is not uncommon for it to be actively encouraged.

eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality security guards killed two people and injured another seven in 2013 during an electricity disconnection at the New Germany shack settlement in Reservoir Hills, Durban. There was a short article in a regional newspaper but no national interest, concern or outrage. 

The everyday violence of the state exceeds the point at which people’s attempts to survive in a society deliberately designed to exclude them, place them on the wrong side of laws and regulations. It exceeds the prison and the migrant detention centre. Schools can be sites of abuse. People are sometimes treated with contempt in clinics and government offices. Bureaucratic contempt can take the form of deliberate sadistic spectacle.

Desensitised and exhausted

In 2012 around 34 000 people applied for 90 trainee traffic officer positions advertised in Pietermaritzburg, revealing the depth of the seemingly permanent economic crisis. The applicants were divided into two groups. In late December that year, the first group was told to show up at the Harry Gwala Stadium on a Thursday and the second on a Friday. 

When the first group of 15 600 applicants arrived, they were told they needed to undergo a fitness test in the form of a 4km run. Many of the participants, likely most of them, had not been told about the fitness test in advance. They were not appropriately dressed. It was a blazingly hot day and no water or medical care was provided. Many of the applicants collapsed and six died. Another killed himself by cutting his throat. Despite this, the exercise was repeated the following day, by which point 230 people were in hospital.

All this passed without much national comment. There was no sign of organised public concern and the incident has seldom been referred to since. We have to ask what sort of society could pass over these kinds of horrors so swiftly?

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State violence operates at such a scale and with such regularity that it is difficult to see how anyone could sustain witness to it and not become desensitised and exhausted. But the state is not solely a predatory excrescence on society. It stems from, shapes and is sustained by society in complex ways, much like in other routinely violent states in countries such as Russia, Mexico and Jamaica. 

When the family, school, church, neighbourhood, workplace and political organisation are potential sites of abuse and violence, it is hardly surprising that people are not particularly shocked by state violence. It is equally unsurprising that there are significant currents in society that enthusiastically support the prospect of more state violence, against impoverished people, migrants, sex workers and people deemed in various ways criminal.

Colonial roots

Such violence and sadism has been rendered a banal, often invisible and unremarkable fact of everyday life. There is nothing expectational about armed men being sent to evict impoverished people from their homes, police officers murdering unarmed people during protests, women trying to report a rape being humiliated in police stations, the police raping sex workers, teachers beating learners, or nurses at community clinics dismissing patients with serious illnesses with open scorn and some paracetamol. 

Of course, the state is not uniformly sadistic. There are nurses and teachers who do extraordinary work under difficult conditions. And the state has realised some impressive social achievements, such as the treatment programme for people with HIV. But anyone who has experienced or witnessed how the state relates to the oppressed majority will know that sadism is a systemic feature of how it works in practice. 

The violence that plagues our society has its roots in violent colonial enslavement, dispossession and then oppression, some of it mediated through institutions as cruel as the prison and the migrant labour hostel. But it is not always acknowledged that colonialism was never a system solely aimed at the extraction and accumulation of wealth. What sociologist WEB du Bois described as the “public and psychological wage” of whiteness had its own motive.

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Along with the accumulation of material wealth there was a relentless, everyday accumulation of a sense of psychic power predicated on the sadistic disavowal of the humanity of the oppressed. This was not only driven by systemic state action, it was also driven by the voluntary, day-to-day actions of individuals. The state did not force anyone to employ a woman to leave her family and work in their home, where she was referred to as a “girl”, grossly exploited, made to live in a tiny and poorly maintained room, expected to eat off an enamel plate and denied family visits. 

Opposition to colonial oppression took many forms, some of which eventually generated their own forms of violence within and between the organisations of the oppressed, and their own forms of organised sadism. This is not an easy thing to acknowledge, but we have to take account of the abuses that emerged within the struggle to develop an adequate grasp of the present. Such abuses include those perpetrated in the ANC’s military camps, during the urban insurrection in the 1980s, and during the war between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One of the reasons why the state continues to approach some people as if they are enemies – and to use routine violence against them – is that colonial modes of governance, such as policing, have been taken over rather than abolished. And when the state tries to sustain a system of social organisation that assumes the citizen must also be a consumer, violence is inevitable.

But the nature of the state is not fully explained by questions of policy, or capacity. It is not an entirely technocratic question. There is also a psychic dimension to the everyday violence and cruelty of the state – to its endemic violence and sadism.

The extent of the damage

This violence and sadism of the state is not surprising when the present is placed in historical context. Violence and sadism are behaviours that can be learnt, normalised and passed on in families and institutions such as schools, the police and forms of political organisation. People who have themselves been subject to personal or social abandonment, abuse and humiliation can seek to overcome their feeling of powerlessness by turning on others. 

The grim realities of the way that violence persists in the state, and in the society with which it is entwined, are part of what has led some to an organised pessimism. It casts the authentic political act as waiting for the end of this world and the birth of another when a decisive moment arrives like a thief in the night. This is metaphorically anticipated in a passage from a great poem by Aimé Césaire in which, suddenly, a new world had “taken off in the violent frou-frou of its great wings of joy, and then, breathtakingly, it would fall back down over the town and burst open the life of the shacks like an over-ripe pomegranate”. But this is an eschatology rather than a theory enabling effective, even if modest, interventions into the present. 

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We know that colonial and apartheid South Africa damaged those whose lives it shaped, oppressor and oppressed. In some instances, people whose courage put them on the right side of history were damaged profoundly by the consequences of their commitment. We know that South Africa continues to damage everyone who lives in it, and that this damage comes from the consequences of the present as well as the past. It may well be that it is simply not possible for a person to live a viable life in this society while recognising each person as a person, living before the face of the other. But this is a question of degree rather than a simple absolute.

As with any other cycle of abuse, we will not be able to stop violence and sadism from rolling through the generations without acknowledging the extent of the damage we have suffered. This conversation requires a degree of humility, a willingness to accept vulnerability and an openness to complexity and contradiction that is far removed from the Manichean certainties, crude sloganeering, macho postures, and disregard for reason and evidence that often mark our politics. 

Along with other innovations, a politics adequate to the crisis of endemic violence would require us to rethink how we remember the past, inhabit the present and imagine the future.

Militarised struggle

Militarism has been one of the currents in the ANC since 1961. It was not central to the political imagination during the Mandela and Mbeki years. But, at the symbolic level, it began to supplant other currents in the party from the period when Zuma begin to mobilise a militarised idea of struggle to try and win support after he was charged with rape in late 2005. This continued during Zuma’s period in office, and was later taken up by the EFF and some currents in the 2015 student movement. In consequence, the general understanding of the struggle against apartheid has become increasingly militarised. 

Imagining the struggle as militarised continues to have enabling symbolic significance in the present for some people and in some moments. Nonetheless, it runs the risks of masculinism and authoritarianism, the sense that “the masses” should be used as a battering ram, the assumption that the process of affirming an equal humanity and building a society grounded in mutual care can only happen after a violent struggle yet to come, and the erasure or diminishment of other forms of struggle, past and present. 

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We will not be able to build a more just society without the constitution and mobilisation of emancipatory force. There is a reason why in the struggles of the oppressed, the call and response chant “Amandla! Awethu ngenkani!”, translated in these spaces as “Power! It is ours by force!”, has become widespread. 

The structures of oppression, material and symbolic – what some call structural and symbolic violence – must be rooted out and this will require organised force. But imagining all this in terms of an inchoate aspiration for redemptive violence in the future is a very different thing to organising and constituting counter-power in the present. And in the present, as in the past, there are forms of organisation that are deliberative and collective spaces in which the dignity of the oppressed is affirmed as both means and end, and struggle is built through communities of care. Like a politics of dignity, a politics of healing can be means and end.

The idea of healing

Given the scale of the violence we face and the way that the state – governed by an elected party that is a former liberation movement formally committed to human rights – continues to renew the cycles of sadism, abuse and violence, is it not time to deliberately and carefully cultivate, in the sense of a garden, a conception of political radicalism that extends beyond militarism? 

This work would need to be historical to inscribe, say, figures such as trade unionists Emma Mashinini and Jabu Ndlovu and radical doctor Abu Baker Asvat, and projects like the theatre work of the Black Consciousness movement, into our historical imagination. It would also need to concern the present and our visions for a better future. 

Powerful individual figures such as Minister of Police Bheki Cele continue to affirm violence as a privileged solution to social problems. Organisations such as the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association and the EFF sometimes do the same.

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Is it not time to bring the idea of healing into the centre of our understanding of radical politics, of the thinking and practice of organisation and movement? To understand struggle as both a site for healing and a force for change? 

Healing as politics, as militant politics, has long been a significant feature of some currents in feminist and Africanist thought, as well as liberation theology, and has been present in the most sustained forms of organisation and mobilisation among the oppressed after apartheid. But this is not easy work. Like the state, no struggle or organisation is separate from wider society. Each struggle and organisation is shaped by a complex, dynamic and unstable mixture of various potentials incubated from within society.

Is it not time to place the work of healing at the heart of the struggle for what Robert Sobukwe, in a formulation that has rightly been termed beautiful, called “life abundant”?

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