The urgency of critique

In this time of crisis in which many hard-won rights have been limited, it is vital that free and open debate be encouraged – including when it is critical of the state.

There is a view, gathering momentum and intensity in certain quarters, that during this pandemic critique of the state is unacceptable. There is a sense among some people, including people with significant power, that under the current circumstances it is unpatriotic, irresponsible and even immoral to question the authority of the state. It has even been suggested that dissent can only be predicated on a disregard for the lives of people who may succumb to the coronavirus.

It is true that in South Africa critique of the state is frequently mediated through racism, sexism and a profound contempt for the impoverished majority. But it is also true that critique comes from all parts of society, including the impoverished majority, and is mediated by a range of ideas, some of them knotted into deep commitments to popular emancipation. When powerful people use the former reality to obscure the latter we are in the presence of an impulse that is as disingenuous as it is authoritarian.

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Among the set of urgent questions to be asked about the lockdown are those that pertain to the authoritarianism and brutality with which it has been imposed. The fact that we live – often in principle rather than in practice – in a constitutional democracy, and are governed by elected authority, does not render these questions illegitimate.

Around the world, the end of colonialism marked a decisive but incomplete break with the past. There were, and remain, significant lines of continuity between colonial pasts and postcolonial presents. One of them is the brutality with which impoverished and other vulnerable people are policed and how their political dissent is repressed.

This is not just a matter of how the state works in practice. It is also a matter of what society accepts as normal. It is a matter of what does and does not count as an outrage.

Residual humanity

The opening pages of Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth offer a searing account of the settler colony. Fanon shows that colonialism divides the world and its inhabitants into two. The humanity of the coloniser is affirmed in everything, from literature to how the streets are lit and interactions with the police. The humanity of the colonised is systemically denied. “They are,” Fanon writes, “born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how.”

This colonial logic has mutated into the present. In a recent interview, Achille Mbembe spoke of contemporary political practices that render people superfluous to the needs of capital and the count of who matters, with the result that there is the production of “a residual humanity that is akin to waste”. These processes remain intensely raced.

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But they are also resisted. In many contemporary societies, including those structured in racism, a murder at the hands of the police can result in insurrectionary forms of protest. In Paris in October 2005, two teenage boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, died after being electrocuted while in flight from the police. For the next two months, France was convulsed with riots. In Athens in December 2008, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old boy, was killed by the police. For a month, there were riots across Greece.

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia after enduring one humiliation too many at the hands of the police. His death resulted in mass protest in Tunisia, which then, turning into a broader critique of exclusion, spread across North Africa and to the Middle East, southern Europe and the United States. The London riots in August 2011 followed the police murder of Mark Duggan.

The Black Lives Matter protests that were organised across the US from 2014 followed the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy, in February 2012 and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, at the hands of the police in 2014.

Killed by the state

In South Africa there is, to our collective shame, a long list of unarmed people who have been killed by the police in the post-apartheid era. People have been killed during protests, as well as during various forms of armed state action such as evictions and disconnection from self-organised electricity connections. There’s an equally long and shameful list of people who have died in police custody.

It is not unusual for deaths at the hands of the state to pass without any media reports or public discussion. When there are reports, the names of the dead are sometimes not given and frequently no attempt is made to establish the circumstances of the killing. Often the scandal is that there is no scandal.

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When a police murder has been recorded on camera – as happened with the killing of Andries Tatane during a protest in Ficksburg in 2011 and the murder of Mido Macie in Daveyton in 2013 – there is usually some public discussion.

But not even the massacre at Marikana in 2012, shown that night on the television news, resulted in sustained mass protest. It did not result in the fall of the government or even the resignation of a president. We do not just face a situation in which we are governed by a state that routinely subjects impoverished black people to colonial forms of policing, we also inhabit a society in which there is tacit consent for colonial forms of policing.

Another kind of lockdown

There have been a number of deaths at the hands of the police and the army during the lockdown. It would be naive to fear there will not be more in the weeks to come.

The murder, on Good Friday, of Collins Khosa in Alexandra has received more media attention than is usually the case with these sorts of murders. This is due, in part, to the shifts in reporting that have occurred during the lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has generated some sense that all our futures are entwined and, as a result, there has been more coverage than usual of the experiences of impoverished people, including evictions and hunger. 

Khosa’s death is now subject to a legal challenge against the minister of defence and the chief of the army, which is also why it is receiving attention. This is not an anomaly. Grassroots activists have long known that middle-class actors will frequently ignore or disbelieve their claims of abuse at the hands of the state if they are not captured on video or repeated in court. State actors understand this equally well, which is why grassroots activists making use of the courts have been targeted for repression and are frequently accused, in high colonial fashion, of being manipulated by malicious white agitators or foreign governments.

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People filming abuses are often assaulted, have their phones destroyed or stolen, or are forced to delete footage at gunpoint. The applicants’ papers in the case bought by the Khosa family describe this in a way that, although chilling, could be a description of unreported events playing out on any ordinary day in South Africa:

“While the attack on Mr Khosa was under way, various other [South African National Defence Force] members … ordered two neighbours, Mr Tebogo Mothabela and Ms Glenda Phaladi, to stop recording these attacks on their cellphones; confiscated their phones and deleted footage of the attacks; forced them into a [Johannesburg Metro Police Department] vehicle, where they slapped and punched them; drove them to a temporary SANDF base; moved them to a SANDF vehicle, where they slapped and punched them further; drove them several kilometres away from Alexandra; dumped them on the side of the road; and threw their phones into the bushes.”

The only claim made here that is unusual is that the allegations are being levelled against soldiers rather than police officers, security guards or people working for anti-land invasion units.

As the lockdown continues, now with a curfew imposed and the bulk of the army deployed to the streets, it is vital that we continue to ask critical questions of both the state and our society. Any attempt to render democratic forms of disputation as unpatriotic or irresponsible must be firmly opposed.

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