Licenced to Kill

By Richard Pithouse · 22 Jul 2013

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Picture: Moments before his death, Andries Tatane being attacked by police. Taken from screenshot of You Tube video.
Picture: Moments before his death, Andries Tatane being attacked by police. Taken from screenshot of You Tube video.

Last week Inigo Gilmore’s documentary, South Africa’s Dirty Cops, was screened on British television. It deals with the torture and murder that have become common at the hands of the South African police and includes an examination of the two most high profile cases of political violence on the part of our police in recent years – the murder of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg in April 2011 and the Marikana Massacre in August last year.

The scale of the Marikana Massacre, in which thirty four people were killed, made it a unique event in post-apartheid South Africa. But the Tatane murder was just one of the many murders of protestors by the police in recent years. There is no properly researched body count but a quick internet search throws up media reports of nearly forty people having being killed by the police during protests since the killing started on a university campus in Durban in 2000. The Tatane murder became so well known for the simple reason that it was captured on video and screened on national television.

But despite all the attention on the Tatane murder the case against the police officers was poorly prepared and crumbled in court. A key factor was that although there is video footage of the murder the officers were wearing helmets and therefore couldn’t, the court concluded, be identified.

Gilmore has since published an article in the Daily Maverick. Along with an account of his travails in the circumlocution offices of a bureaucracy intent on denying him access to all the footage of the Tatane murder he reports that, on the basis of the footage that he could access, it was not difficult to identify the police officers who murdered Tatane. There clearly wasn’t much commitment to taking this prosecution seriously.

Gilmore quotes Tatane’s widow, Rose, who gets to the heart of the matter: "I am asking myself whether the police are the ANC’s police - or are they the police of this country?" Neither individual police officers nor police stations are all the same and there are places where the police have emerged as far more credible centres of authority than elected politicians or local party structures. There is also at least one case where a police officer has bravely testified in court about violence organised through local ANC structures. But, speaking broadly, the answer to Rose Tatane’s question is clear.

It’s bad enough when the police have a licence to beat, torture and kill with impunity in order to supress popular dissent. But the police are, at least in principle, accountable via various mechanisms. When these are not working there is always some possibility of reform. But in recent years political violence has also been organised through local party structures and shadowy assassins, usually acting with police sanction. This is an even more disturbing development as it removes political violence from any sort of oversight via democratic institutions.

In recent years a number of senior figures in the ANC have offered endorsements, some implicit and some more direct, of political violence directed against the party’s grassroots critics. And once the easy refuge of empty abstractions is discounted it is difficult to find any record of a senior figure in the ANC taking a clear position against any of the specific incidents where political violence has been used to repress popular dissent against the party. There is not a single case of active, sincere and sustained solidarity with the actual victims of political violence against ANC critics by a senior figure within the party or any faction within the party. Julius Malema only turned towards the ANC’s grassroots critics, most notably striking miners at Marikana, when his position within the party was under threat and he was looking for a constituency elsewhere. Cosatu’s response to the Marikana massacre, as well as other instances of repression like that suffered by Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, has been entirely shameful. There were a number of statements from within the federation condemning the murder of Tatane but none of them acknowledged the systemic nature of the problem or expressed solidarity in the form of effective action.

The ANC routinely presents popular dissent, even when it’s perfectly lawful and rooted in questions of simple justice, as illegitimate and sinister by misrepresenting it as criminal or part of some anti-national conspiracy. At times these two tropes are combined via the idea that cunning agitators, often imagined to be white and working under the direction of foreign governments, are mobilising criminals against the ANC. When the agency of black activists is recognised they are often said to have white handlers. The continuities with the political logic of colonialism and apartheid are clear. And, ironically for a national liberation movement, these ideological machinations are frequently grounded in a denial of the political capacities of people who are poor and black, matched with a wild inflation of how the political capacities of white people are imagined, in a manner that is undeniably racist.

Just last month Gwede Mantashe told us that Irish and Swedish people were the driving force behind what he called the anarchy on the platinum belt. On Sunday Buti Makhongela told ANC cadres to “Go into the informal settlements to recruit for NUM and the ANC…This (Amcu) is a small cockroach that needs a mild spray to solve it.” The recklessness of these comments, along with their denial of reality, is astonishing. We are not dealing with an organisation that has taken clear measure of the reasons for popular dissent and plans to respond via democratic modes of engagement.

The ANC has attained power via democratic means and, despite the fracturing of its support, remains far more popular than any other political party. There are many spheres of South African life, in particular bourgeois life, in which democracy continues to be taken for granted as the matrix for social interaction. But many people who are poor and black have found that democracy does not extend to being able to organise against the ANC in freedom and safety. These people are not running into isolated examples of aberrant behaviour on the part of the ANC. By its words and its actions the party, as a whole, has made it perfectly clear that it cannot be considered to be a democratic organisation. Even the most enlightened currents and figures within the party are complicit, sometimes merely by their silence and inaction, with its licence to kill.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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