Saturday, 8 October 2016

Short Memories and Reinvented Histories: Protest and Violence in South Africa

There’s a lot of truth to the view that the most recent history is often the most difficult to unpack, precisely because we don’t have enough distance from it to judge it clearly. It’s tangled up with the present, and our subjectivity remains clouded while we move ahead into the future. It’s understandable. But it is enormously frustrating to see how dishonestly many have revised their histories in this short period of time.

Many, who were gripped by fear of that archetypal trope of the Apartheid system – the black radical militant – and feared black government and that South Africa would end up being another post-liberation African tragedy, were highly sceptical about democracy. The African National Congress (ANC) were widely viewed as radical black communist terrorists who would take everything away from the middle classes. Even the United Democratic Front (UDF) wasn’t viewed in a positive light by many.

The worker marches were typically depicted as evidence of black communist radical militancy; every time a shop window was broken during a march, or a few bricks were thrown, it was displayed as evidence of the ever-present threat lurking just beneath the surface. This, in large part, allowed for the use of disproportionate force to be levelled against them, for death squads to operate, for “third forces” to do their work, with the silent consent of South Africans.

Yet after liberation came, and the Madiba magic did its work, many radically revised their views, and their own personal histories with it. Many were very happy to include themselves amongst the previously disadvantaged, because it meant they could grasp the low-hanging fruit that opening up the economy and the institutions yielded. Affirmative action was readily abused by those who had previously shied away from lending even the faintest support to the struggle for liberation.

Some even reinvented themselves as long-time ANC and struggle stalwarts; they made up imaginary pasts for themselves, with themselves playing central roles in the struggle for liberation. Many joined the ANC, or associated themselves with it, as it became clearer that where power resided, there were great benefits to be obtained. They are, in part, responsible for the pathetic state of the ANC today. They infected it with their apathy, their conservatism, and their indifference to the plight of those who really suffered under Apartheid, and continued to suffer under the new system.

Over time, those activists who had once been regarded as misguided and radical, became the centre-piece of the stories that their families and friends – who had not themselves supported the struggle for liberation – retold as evidence of their association and involvement in the struggle. Nowadays, everyone has a struggle story to tell in South Africa, yet when it counted their voices were silent. When they raised their voices it was to express their fears of radical black militancy.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, once again, the fears of radical black militants has come to dominate the public conversation on the student protest actions. And it is being uncritically echoed, without adequate reflection on what is actually unfolding in South African society, and the responses are needed.

Protest is about civil disobedience; it is about disrupting the status quo. It does not have to be violent, but it has to assert power. Sit-ins, marches, building occupations, etc. are not violent, radical forms protest that require stun grenades and rubber bullets – they are disruptive, but that’s what civil disobedience is. It disrupts the normal functions of society. In doing so, it exerts power on the society and institutions it seeks to challenge and bring to the negotiating table.

When society, its institutions and governments fail to deliver on their democratically awarded mandates, and systematically silence and ignore their constituencies, disrupting the everyday procession of the functions, activities and processes that uphold the establishment is an entirely valid form of protest. Protests do not erupt overnight; they may appear to, and may be represented by the media as explosions of discontent, but they more often than not involve a fair amount of frustration with the bureaucratic channels that are available to activists who seek restitution, justice and fair treatment. Rarely do protests emerge as the madness of the mob does; they are not the same thing. Mob behaviour might infect protest actions, but they are not the cause of it.

The inability to make this distinction between activists embarking on protest, and mob behaviour, is perhaps the greatest obstacle to understanding the plight of protesters. This is no less the case in South Africa, whether historically, or in this present moment, where student protests have brought universities and higher education institutions to a standstill.

The ever-resident spectre of the radical black militant – a dehumanising trope that has its roots in settler fears of the anti-colonial struggles of liberation movements – has never truly been overcome by the majority of the ruling classes in postcolonial Africa.  It relegates black Africans to the extreme end of the dichotomy that was ascribed to black subaltern existence, that is; a dichotomy between the submissive smiling, laughing, ever-agreeing, docile native on the one hand, and the scurrilous, untrustworthy, rebellious savage on the other.

In 2015, it is difficult to stomach the thoughtless reproduction of the characterisation of young student protesters as disrespectful ‘angry blacks’ who have no respect for the rule of law, or even the education they are fighting for. Yet it has been widely reproduced in the media, as well as on social media. There are scarcely any attempts to contextualise the protests of South African students and youth in terms of their colonial, Apartheid and post-Apartheid histories, nor has there been any attempt to contextualise it in terms of the global movement for change in the higher education sector.

Protest actions are never neatly implemented; they are complex and difficult to control. That is the nature of protest action; it is unpredictable. Eruptions of conflict, intimidation and violence, while regrettable, do not distract from the validity of a political cause that is directed against injustice, or a morally and principally bankrupt socio-political compact that is not serving society, or the majority of its members.

Thus far, there has been no loss of life as a direct result of violent action, either by the police or by protesters. Two events stand out; the alleged rape of a UKZN student by a policeman and the death of a worker who suffered respiratory failure (there are conflicting accounts about the cause of death; some attributing the workers death to the use of teargas, and others attributing it to the release of fire extinguishers by protesting students). These events have featured far less in the conversations around intimidation and violence, presumably because they are not as important as the overblown imaginary that stalks middle class – and especially white – South Africa, that of the unreasonable and violent radical black militant.

So it is extremely ironic that while South Africans now all award a great reverence to the generation of scholars and students who shook up the system in the 1970s (including those who died in the June 16th massacre of 1976), that they forget how these very same people were regarded by South African society back then. That is, they were widely viewed – by those in power then – as black radical militants who were deserving of state army and police crackdowns, banning orders, victimisation, extra-judicial killings and the like.  

More recently, in the build-up to the largest state massacre in post-Apartheid democratic South Africa – that of the Marikana workers in August 2012 – the very same archetype was invoked to bring disproportionate force to bear on the workers. In the case of Marikana, the killing of four miners, two police officers and two security guards preceded the massacre, and was used as a rationale for a large-scale police crackdown. Very few now remember that a particular set of logics was resident in the decision-making that led to the unwarranted confrontation with mineworkers, who contained on a hill-site, posed no threat to property, mine personnel or anybody else. Yet it was clear, the day before the confrontation occurred, that the police had been instructed to take drastic action to remove the workers.

As a nation, we have short memories. For the very same set of logics are currently being deployed by the institutions of higher education, the media and the government in this current moment. The police commissioner promised a crackdown on students in a Friday interview on television. It is clear, that the justification to mobilise disproportionate force to crush the student rebellion is being insidiously manufactured. The tone is that they ‘need to be taught a lesson’. Yet despite damage to property (a few buildings were set on fire), and some inconveniences and disruptions (blocking roads onto campus’s, disrupting lectures), the protests have not resulted in any deaths.

Most often they were peaceful until private security intervened, or the police intervened, often using stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent building occupations and sit-ins. This in itself is unconscionable, sit-ins and building occupations are disruptive, but they are essentially peaceful forms of protest. They should not be met with force; they should be met with prolonged engagement and dialogue. Force is sure to escalate this situation and guarantee that normal functioning of universities will take even longer than anticipated.

Shutting down the university system, with all its consequences, lies at the heart of the protesters strategy to force government to show leadership on the critical challenges facing the higher education sector. It is not the end of the world; students have long end-of-year holidays (3 months) and often rewrite examinations over that period when they have marginally failed (i.e. supplementary examinations). Rigid university bureaucracies will have to work harder to solve the administrative crisis that has been brought about; but this is not a crisis that requires the use of extreme force to resolve. It requires institutional and political commitments, and no more delays in pronouncing those commitments.

Should the student protesters win these commitments, and initiate the most revolutionary changes that have as yet unfolded in post-Apartheid South Africa, it will set the tone and foundations for building a new society; a radical revision of the state. For the majority, who have been excluded from power and access to the privileges enjoyed by the middle classes and the elite, it would be a seismic shift into a new people-centred democracy, where priorities are assigned outside of the prevailing neoliberal system and state. With the highest inequality in the world (according to the World Bank), South Africa desperately needs to embark upon a new trajectory; this moment might well lead to that.

When the transition to democracy had been safely achieved, those who were sceptical of it became the ones who later pronounced their enduring devotion to it the loudest. They would have you believe that they risked life and limb for it. So this time round, I can safely predict that after a decade has passed, there will be another radical revision of personal histories in South Africa, depending on which way the wind blows over the next decade.

And so it will be up to a few of us to remind South Africans, that they were the very same society that did nothing when the June 16th massacre took place in 1976 (it took 18 years before liberation was won), and when the government was artificially inflating the Marikana crisis in preparation for a confrontation. That they in fact fed into, legitimised and exacerbated the capacity for state violence by virtue of their inability to move beyond their fears of a powerful imaginary, one that resides deep within the subconscious of South African society; that of the radical black militant. That they need to be reminded that for all their cries of “never again”, they are the ones who in fact ensure that history repeats itself with impunity.

First posted: 8/10/2016
Revised: 12/10/2016

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