By Gerard Boyce
The violent protests that rocked France this month in response to the police killing of teenager Nahel Merzouk do not appear to have garnered much by way of public attention here in South Africa (SA). That these events seem distant to ordinary South Africans and policymakers alike is unsurprising as many South Africans have been preoccupied with news of a domestic incident of apparent police brutality.
One refers specifically to the assault on motorists by members of the VIP protection unit assigned to protect Deputy President Paul Mashatile that took place on the N1 highway in Johannesburg earlier this month (July 2023). Cellphone footage of this vicious assault captured by passersby quickly went viral in the country leading to public outcry and subsequently, the suspension of the officers involved.
The swift response of the authorities has done little, however, to soothe popular anger at the police and it is likely that further action will be taken against these officers following the official investigation into their conduct that has been launched.
Now that an investigation into the offending officers’ conduct is underway and the situation in France has calmed down somewhat, it might be the ideal time for South Africans to turn their attention to events unfolding there and the simmering social tensions that young Nahel Merzouk’s death at the hands of the police brought to the boil in that country with a view to possibly drawing lessons for SA from the French experience in the wake of this incident.
Most obviously because public anger directed towards the police was ignited in response to alleged abuse of power by police officers in both instances. It also happens that, in both cases the victim(s) of the police attacks that sparked public outrage were male members of minority groups which have long been stereotyped as violent or prone to deviancy. In the French case, predominantly Muslim men of North African extraction (colloquially known as ‘beur’) whereas in the South African case, members of the ‘Coloured’ ethnic group.
For non-South African readers not familiar with the ethnic composition of South Africa’s population, the South African population has traditionally been divided into four broad racial classifications viz. Black Africans, Whites, Indians (or Asians) and people of mixed descent who are classified as Coloureds. These classifications were retained after the democratic government came to power in 1994 and form the basis of government policies aimed at racial redress. Incidentally, both ‘beur’ and Coloured groups constitute roughly 10 percent of the population in France and SA, respectively.
Beyond their minority status and the stereotypes that have come to be associated with members of the groups to which victims belong, the wider national discourse surrounding members of these two minority groups and their place in their respective societies also share remarkable similarities. For instance, members of the ‘beur’ community (especially younger ones) tend to perceive themselves as objects of discrimination by mainstream French society. As with members of the Coloured group in SA whose members express similar sentiments, these feelings have fostered a general sense of alienation from wider French society.
Likewise, this community also suffers from high levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Lack of economic opportunity is often attributed to official discrimination, whether real or perceived. Flowing from this perception, many have grown discouraged and become disillusioned with the status quo which they believe serves to marginalize and exclude them and people like them.
In terms of residential patterns, many (most?) reside in socioeconomically depressed communities that are still largely segregated along racial lines and where demographics have remained largely unchanged. Mainly located on the peripheries of major cities and industrial areas, the livelihoods of residents of these communities have been closely intertwined with the economic fortunes of the manufacturing industry in these countries as members of these groups have been strongly represented in the artisanal or blue-collar sectors of the labour market.
Consequently, these communities have since gone into decline as the French and South African economies have de-industrialised and the share of manufacturing in GDP has shrunk. Unless they are re-skilled or otherwise afforded the ability to capitalize on any newer opportunities that might arise in a rapidly changing economic landscape, these communities will continue to bear the brunt of the transnational processes re-shaping the economic geography of the world that show no sign of abating. As a result, they will struggle to enter the economic mainstream in their countries and efforts to integrate them into society will continue to falter.
Often, although by no means the case for every individual, diminished economic prospects fuel the growth of organized criminal networks, especially those linked to drug trafficking and usage. High levels of criminal activity have led many predominantly ‘beur’ areas in France to be designated ‘no-go areas’ where the reach of the state has been curtailed and the rule of law subordinated to that of powerful non-state actors whose grip holds sway in large parts of these areas. Crucially, this has led many residents, young people especially, to view them rather than the state as the most reliable guarantors of personal security and protection.
Similarly, this has translated into the rise of gangs in Coloured townships across SA. Increasing gang activity in these communities and criminality in general is reflected in the national crime statistics of both countries. According to these figures, members of these groups, young men in particular, are disproportionately represented in national crime statistics, especially those relating to violent crimes and assault. Having a criminal record or having spent time incarcerated, in turn, puts them at a further disadvantage in the labour market by decreasing their chances of securing gainful employment in the formal sector of the economy. This only serves to reinforce their exclusion from the formal economy.
Granted, the plight of these communities does differ in some important political respects. Feelings of not belonging or being neglected by the state has led to an upsurge of Coloured support for the idea of Cape secession i.e. independence for the province where the majority of them reside in SA. Widespread support in this community for the Democratic Alliance (DA), the traditionally white opposition party, could also be interpreted as a rejection of the mainly Black-led and supported ruling ANC or left of centre Economic Freedom Fighters. The latter are parties which, at face value, appear better-placed to champion this working class community’s economic interests than the right of centre DA.
In contrast, relative isolation and a sense of alienation from French society has driven many young men from the ‘banlieue’ to engage in domestic terror attacks or sign up to groups that preach a separatist Islamist ideology.
Barring these distinctions and but for subtle differences in turns of phrase, the economic, political and social factors that commentators and pundits have identified as the underlying causes of the violence that has engulfed France could easily be applied to the Coloured community in SA, a minority group which appears to be becoming increasingly resentful of the second-class status which they believe has been bestowed upon them in the New South Africa.
The uncanny similarities in the problems which France and South Africa face in integrating these groups and creating a united society to which all citizens feel they equally belong offer compelling reasons why SA policymakers and SA society at large ought to pay closer attention to the events unfolding in France at present.
At a deeper level, the continued protests in France this summer serve as a warning of the dangers of continuing to foreground race and identity-based politics and of government persisting in using race to guide policymaking even at the risk of stoking the popular anger that is mounting in certain communities at the racialized hierarchy which community members believe mediates economic freedom, access to political power and state resources. Should politicians and leaders ignore this growing disgruntlement and disaffection and government and civil society groups fail collectively in their floundering nation-building efforts to weave all SA’s minorities into the nation’s tapestry, it is only a matter of time before the events unfolding in France play themselves out in SA.
NOTE: The author acknowledges that some readers might find the use of certain racial terms unacceptable or even offensive. Any offence is regretted.