Policing the Neo-colony

By Richard Pithouse · 26 Mar 2013

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Picture: National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega courtesy GovernmentZA/Flickr.
Picture: National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega courtesy GovernmentZA/Flickr.

In the colonies ….the agents of government speak the language of pure force. - Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961

All societies are managed with a mixture of force and consent. But in South Africa like, say, India or Mexico, violence, or the threat of violence, is woven so tightly into the banalities and intimacies of day to day life that it is part of the deep structure of things. And it is not simply a matter, as many politicians would like us to believe, of criminality understood as an alien evil that must be exorcised from our midst. On the contrary from the family, to the school, party thugs, private security companies and the police violence is part of the texture of everyday life and central to many of its most powerful institutions.

This is entirely typical of colonial societies which are founded in conquest and sustained with violence. But, as Frantz Fanon brilliantly shows in the opening pages of The Wretched of the Earth, in settler colonies violence takes on an added intensity because in a “world cut in two” a huge infrastructure of violence, marked out with police stations and barracks but reaching into the home and the mind, is necessary to sustain the symbolic and material denial of shared humanity in a single habitation.

Although the undeniable grace and elegance of some of our formal aspirations for a post-apartheid society never got to grips with the material division of our society they certainly opened a road towards a vision of a society rooted in the recognition of human dignity rather than relentless intimidation. For some years it seemed to many people that, imperfect as all attempts to reach towards higher ideals are, time was on our side and the violence of the past would give way to democratic norms.

But that hope was always fantastical. As so often happens with liberation movements of various kinds the ANC reinscribed rather than undid many aspects of the old structure of our society. Of course the active attempts to deracialise the elite sphere of society were a very significant challenge to the sort of racism that had meant that, in Fanon’s terms, “The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.” But changing the basis on which the world is “cut in two” doesn’t change the fact that there are dividing lines that mark out the places to which “different species” must keep or that they will need to be policed with violence. For Fanon the spatial segregation of the colonial order is central to its logic.

Under colonialism and apartheid it was clear that the township was a highly and in fact entirely racialised mode of organising and allocating space. But after assuming power the ANC immediately set about building more townships, often on the same sites set aside for township development during apartheid. Even more incredibly within ten years they had returned to the ‘transit camp’, an often semi-carceral colonial technique for sustaining the control and racialised division of space. And the ongoing division of our society into a world “cut in two” and inhabited by “different species” continues to reinscribe itself in education, health care, access to livelihoods, access to the elite public sphere and so on.

The hope that our more elevated aspirations would slowly trickle down into the deep structure of reality came to an end with the highly masculinised and sometimes militarised symbolism of the campaign that saw Jacob Zuma through his travails and into the Presidency. Threats of violence against the woman who had accused Zuma of rape, and declarations of a willingness to kill for Zuma, pushed all that aside. And Zuma, who had spent much of his political life in an armed struggle that never achieved anything like the political traction of the Black Consciousness, trade union and community struggles in South Africa, has never been able to lay out a vision for a more democratic mode of politics. The militarisation of the police in 2010 was a clear statement of intent on the part of his new government.

Three years later the rate at which people are tortured and killed in detention and beaten and killed on the streets during protests is simply incredible. The police are routinely used to contain legitimate dissent in ways that are in plain violation of the law. And, increasingly, it is the party itself that meets out violence with the tacit support of the police. The rate of political assassinations is simply staggering.

It was the televised murder of Andries Tatane in 2011 that began to wake our elite public sphere up to the realities of how popular dissent was being policed. Tatane’s death was not unusual but it broke the complacency because it was screened on television. And we should not forget that his fate ended up being televised as a direct result of the strength and persistence of grassroots protest which eventually began to compel elite attention.

The massacre at Marikana marked the end of the ANC’s long international honeymoon. And now, partly as a result of smart phones becoming more accessible, the routine horror of policing in South Africa is steadily trickling up and into the elite public sphere and making its way abroad.

But as Riah Phiyega continues to obfuscate at the Farlam Commission, Zuma insists that we don’t have a systemic problem, that abuses are isolated, and that there is no need for a commission of inquiry into the police. This is a view point that may make some sense from Nkandla but it makes no sense at all if you’re locked out of the zones of privilege. In fact these days it is a view that makes no sense at all if you just read a newspaper every now and then - even if you read it from within a gated community in Sandton.

In the unlikely event that a commission of inquiry was run in a serious way and with the sincere cooperation of the police and the politicians it may result in some ideas for doing things in a better way. But we will not solve our problem with violence, and in particular our problem with state violence, and our growing problem with party violence, until we find a way to start building a society that is post-colonial rather than neo-colonial. And the hard reality is that Zuma and his cronies seem far more interested in dividing up the spoils of our current arrangements rather than looking beyond them.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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