By Pedro Alexis Tabensky
There are at least two ways of dealing with the abject problem of poverty: one promising and the other not. One way involves conceiving of poverty as a problem and the other endorses the view that the poor are the problem. One requires ingenuity and care, and the other thirsts for violence. Unfortunately, it is the easy option that demands ever-greater levels of violence against the poor. So there is a bias in favour of State sanctioned brutality (sanctioned, minimally, insofar as very little indeed is being done by the State to combat the trend, but also sanctioned more proactively by the Bheki Celes of our land).
The violence stemming from choosing the easy option is inscribed on the body of the Chairperson of the Grahamstown branch of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) —Ayanda Kota — and on many other disenfranchised bodies across the land as a consequence of our increasingly brutal police force, as reported by Amnesty International and by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). In an open letter addressed to Nathi Mthethwa, the Minister of Police, in response to the brutal murder of Andries Tatane, Frans Cronje, of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), states that: ‘What the South African police are effectively engaged in is no longer a simple matter of law enforcement. Rather, your officers are now at the coal face of the political struggle of poor black South Africans to be liberated from poverty.’
I should mention in passing, for it is not my primary target here, that the DA has little to be proud of; for police brutality and other forms as well, are a common occurrence in the Western Cape. Take, for instance, the police oppression in Hamburg in 2010, where the police systematically shot rubber bullets into protesters’ faces with the consequence of several eyes being lost. And one mustn’t forget Blikkiesdorp and the open toilets debacle. So, one should avoid thinking that the solution to the problem is to vote DA.
It is safe to say that in South Africa today, and Grahamstown is no exception, there is an epidemic of bruises, including deadly ones. Consider the lifeless body of Andries Tatane after being attacked by a pack of bloodthirsty member of the SAPS.
One good way of measuring the quality of a democracy is to assess the behavior of its police, and we are increasingly measuring up very badly indeed. One could speculate that those police who have moved beyond the bounds of human decency are bad apples in a basket of largely good ones, but this sort of move only has a genuine exculpating function if the state shows clear signs of doing something unambiguously decisive to put a stop to the violence meted out against those who are tired of broken promises. If the state doesn’t, then one is entitled to assume that those accused of being bad apples, and who may very well be a minority in the police force, are being used as scapegoats. Added credibility is given to the scapegoat hypothesis if one considers that all politically motivated violence occurring today in South Africa is meted out against those who oppose the current dispensation. I am yet to hear of a case in which the police act with impunity against the ANC Youth League when it acts, as it far too often does, against those who voice their discontent about the state of our democracy.
Given the urgency of the problem of increasing police violence, and given that the violence is directed against those who are tired of being lied to, mere verbal endorsement that there is a problem will not suffice. In fact, verbal endorsement without decisive action should be taken as further evidence in support of the hypothesis that the state actually condones what is happening, as is using the bad apple argument in light of the escalating crisis.
The fact that a hugely disproportionate number of black men live in prisons in the US, and the fact that black men are regularly harassed by the US police, is an expression of the living legacy of Jim Crow. And we shouldn’t be surprised that in the Chile of Pinochet the police became a branch of the oppressive apparatus. In a chameleon-like fashion, as soon as the dictatorship ended, police behavior came to mirror the new democratic ethos. The biggest thugs suddenly became soft teddy bears seemingly working for a new kind of future. And as soon as the façade of quasi-perfect democracy crumbled and student unrest threatened to destabilize the status quo, founded on some kind of not-so-noble lie, the Chilean police rapidly changed its colours once again in accordance with the demands of the state.
Police forces tend to uncritically react to the needs of those in power. And if those in power are brutal, then there will be a strong tendency for at least a significant minority of the police to act like a pack of wolves. This is not to say that all or most police will act in this way, but a significant number will. So, police force behaviour tends to mirror the moral integrity of a democracy and, given that the transgressions of the police are relatively easy to observe, it is an ideal place to look for signs of decay. Police forces across the globe are mirrors against which the true colours of their employers are revealed. Detective Zulu and his gang’s alleged pummeling of Kota, insofar as it exemplifies a trend, helps us see what the ruling coalition is increasingly coming to stand for.
But not only do the police reflect the general ethos of our current dispensation. In 2010 our local ANCYL violently sabotaged a meeting organised by the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement (UPM) aimed at shedding light on why thousands of Grahamstown East residents had no water for months. The municipality did nothing to make things better for local residents until residents themselves started to take matters in their own hands and exercise their democratic rights to protest. The evidence is mounting in favour of the view that our municipality — reflecting the national trend — does not care about the plight of the poor.
The cynical distribution of food parcels during municipal elections is further evidence of lack of care. And lack of care in the face of extreme poverty amounts to a form of violence, which complements SAPS thugery, and lends further evidence to the hypothesis that our democracy is in decay. Typically, the Makana Municipality acts only insofar as it can entrench its power. Neither they nor the police do anything when a citizen such as Kota is threatened by the ANCYL. And the man who led this violent intervention at the water shortage meeting — Mabhuti Matyumza —is now employed by the Makana Municipality and was previously communication officer of the Makana SAPS. He was not penalised for his actions as he should have been despite the fact that information about this reprehensible event was widely circulated. In fact, there are good reasons — relating directly to the politics of co-option that has become the mark of local and national politics — to suspect that he was prized for his behaviour.
Soon after the sabotaged water shortage meeting, and as recently reported in the Mail & Guardian and by myself, Ayanda Kota and others were arrested when peacefully trying to stop the police from discharging ‘sweets’, as one of the police officers who were present referred to rubber bullets, at protesters in Phaphamani who were outraged at the illegal banning by the Makana Municipality of a protest scheduled to take place in town.
In light of what I have argued above, the savage attack against Ayanda Kota seems to be an expression of the sad state of our democracy. His bruised body tells us the story of a democracy in decline. Regular threats directed at Kota by members of the ANCYL and by members of other state aligned organisations and even attempts by ANC operatives to bribe him gives further credence to the story of decay. Strong and reasonable dissenting voices are the bread and butter of true democracies, but working for a true democracy is a much harder task than merely perpetuating a mediocre one that serves the few by crushing the many. It is thanks to social movements that we rid our country of the tyranny of apartheid and it will be significantly thanks to these movements that the highly imperfect democracy we live in today will one day come to flourish.
Pedro Alexis Tabensky is a philosopher based at Rhodes University.