On Violence

By Richard Pithouse · 22 Oct 2010

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Picture: looking4poetry
Picture: looking4poetry

The fear of violence, like the fear of monsters, is primal and universal. But the sensitive middle class soul who professes a deep revulsion at all forms of violence is quite likely to call the police or a private security company if he wakes to the sound of breaking glass. Violence is seldom renounced in the absolute. It is more usually outsourced.

In the global public sphere horror at violence is far from equitable. Four and a half million people died in the war in the Congo with a small fraction of the global attention given to the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and London.

The same graduation of horror is present in our own society. We all know that the media and the police treat the murder of a rich white person in an entirely different way to the murder of a poor black person. In fact, the police themselves are killing poor black people at a rate not seen since the 1980s and they are doing it with very little public condemnation.

There is no real scandal at the violence that is endemic in our prisons, in the detention centres for undocumented migrants, in the way that sex work is policed or in the way in which the state, often via sub-contracted security companies, uses violence to drive poor people off valuable land in our cities.

We live in an unusually violent society and it’s perfectly rational to fear violence. But the very rationality of our fear of violence is often misused to legitimate the coded public expression of the deeply irrational anxieties that lurk in places, like private homes, where racism, xenophobia and fear of the poor fester.

It’s often assumed that all violence is always unacceptable now that we have democracy. If the rights and protections of our democracy had been extended to everyone this argument would be irreproachable. But the reality is that while in principle all citizens can vote, appeal to the courts to protect their rights and lobby the state and capital via civil society many people are systemically excluded from meaningful access to democratic participation and protection.

It's one thing to have to confront the urgent crisis of life lived in a shack settlement, which is likely to burn several times a year, where you have to waste hours of your life queuing for water, where you have to shit in a plastic bag, where children are regularly dying of diarrhoea, and where the police refuse to offer you protection and treat the whole community as criminal with the result that people are at constant risk of rape and criminal violence. 

But you may also have to confront a situation where you simply cannot raise these issues through ‘the correct channels’. It is not unusual for shack settlements to be run by unelected party loyalists that, with the backing of the local police, don’t tolerate independent political activity and demand party cards and public displays of political loyalty in order to access what services are delivered.

Independent organisation is a logical solution to this situation but it is not always tolerated. In some places policing has been politicised to the point where the state engages in fairly routine violence against people seeking to organise and to protest legally and peacefully.

There have been instances when horizontal violence has been marshalled against people via the mobilisation of xenophobic or ethnic sentiment with the support of local party leaders and the police.  In these circumstances there are cases where, in an immediate crisis, defensive violence, like using stones to keep the police at bay, or organising protection against xenophobic or ethnic mobs, can be rational, effective and socially committed.

The question of violence is not just a question of actual violence. It is now routine for the police, politicians, the media and some currents in civil society to label behaviour that is clearly not violent as violence. The South African Oxford English Dictionary defines violence as “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage or kill.” But protests that have involved no attempts to harm any person physically have often been described as violent when they have been carried out against the wishes of local political leaders or have temporarily occupied physical or social space more usually under elite control. This even happens when these protests have involved no damage to property or disruption. But even if protests do include damage to property or some form of disruption, such as a road blockade, they are still not violent unless people are physically harmed.

It’s also the case that when entirely peaceful protests have been attacked by the police, which is not an uncommon occurrence, they are routinely described as ‘violent’ by the police and the media even when the salient fact is that the only violence was perpetrated by the police. This habitual imprecision in the use of the word violence is not a general imprecision. It is loaded against poor people and it accumulates its impact in a tendency towards a systemic presentation of poor people’s independent public political actions as irrational and anti-social.

Once particular people, organisations or collective events have been labelled as violent it becomes easy to disregard them or to repress them. Just as it is highly irresponsible to not name the actions of the state as violence in those instances when they plainly are, it is equally irresponsible to refer to popular protest as violence in those instances when it plainly isn’t.

It’s often been argued that one of the great failings of the liberal idea that we can resolve our problems if we all just get together and talk things through is that it fails to understand that no one gets their place at the mythical table around which the elite public sphere is constituted without struggle. Struggles for a place at that table have often been violent and, even when they have been entirely peaceful, they have often been presented as violent - as well as criminal, mad, self interested and driven by cunning outside agitators of various sorts - and then responded to with state violence.

It’s less than a hundred years since the suffragettes were force-fed in English prisons and less than fifty years since the marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama were attacked by the police. The philosophers Lewis and Jane Gordon remind us that across space and time elites generally assume that the system in which they have prospered is ultimately good and that the people that disrupt its smooth functioning must be problem people – even monsters. They point out that in anti-black societies, black people are rendered monstrous “when they attempt to live and participate in the wider civil society and engage in processes of governing among whites...Their presence in society generally constitutes crime”.

In contemporary South Africa we may not have fully opened all of civil society to the presence of black people and women but we are, at least, committed to this in principle. But the presence of self-organised poor people in civil society is often received as a threat by all kinds of constituencies, including some of those that, be they liberal or radical, assume a right to enlighten and lead poor people from above. Entirely baseless and pejorative allegations of criminality, violence and external manipulation are not uncommon.

A xenophobic mob is monstrous. A blue light cavalcade rushing an arms dealer or tenderpreneur through the traffic is monstrous. A smug racist tut tutting at it all is monstrous.  But a woman blocking a road with burning tyres in desperation at having to go on, year after year, raising her children in the mud and fire of shack life may well be just a woman demanding her rightful place in our society. These things are all about context but it could be, it could well be, that her rightful name is comrade.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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1 Nov


I think it would be a good idea for there to be a minimal level of referencing in articles of this kind. For example, the claim that "the police themselves are killing poor black people at a rate not seen since the 1980s" is difficult to accept without justification given the situation in the 80s. If this claim is true it is very significant and I think more details would have been fascinating.

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20 Nov

Excellent Piece Richard

This is an incredibly analytically precise and, also, quite beautifully written piece. SACSIS deserve real kudos for elevating the state of our political discourse at a time when so many seem set on bringing it down into the gutter.

I do hope that the TAC will apologise to AbM now that the ANC YL has admitted that it has been responsible for the thuggery in TR section in Khayelitsha.

It was extremely disappointing to see TAC trying to create a moral panic about AbM in Cape Town when in fact it was a faction of the ANC, the party to which TAC is aligned, that was responsible for the thuggery there. They really should apologise to AbM and to Msonke Poni too.

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Mhlobo Gunguluzi
22 Nov

Housing and Violence in Cape Town

The failure of the ANC government to build edequate houses for the people means there is a theat of violence. As we all know that the Coloured Preferential Act that stipulated that the Western Cape is place were the coloureds can work protected by law. As I was growing up looking for a job, no boss would employ a black person while a Coloured person was on queue. It was illegal for the bosses to employ black Africans instead of Coloureds. It was believed by the Coloureds that the Western Cape belongs to them only. Small land was alocated for building houses for Africans. This Act and others made Coloureds believe that the Wesrtern Cape was theirs. Now there is a threat of violence between Africans and Coloureds.

Recently the coloured of Eerste River have refused to allow Africans to have houses there. They were saying that that are not going to allow Africans to reside in Eerste River. The coloureds are making the Earster River an Island for only themselves meaning no house for Africans. This is going to lead to violence as more and more Africans in the Western Cape need land for houses. If one looks at Gugulethu, one will notice that there are too many backyarders because there is no land available formaking houses for Africans. It is due to apartheid legacy that Coloureds think that Eerste River belongs to them. Now the Coloureds in Eerste River are refusing the government orders that Africans from Gugulethu be housed there. They have used violence to threaten Africans who want to be housed there. If the colourds used violence to disallow Africans from owning a house there then this is going to spark violence of Coloureds on Africans and vis-versa.

In the Western Cape there can be violence that has been created by apartheid legacy. If Africans are attacked in Eerste River, Africans in other areas will want to make a revenge. Then there will be violence all over South Africa where colourds and Africans are fighting. That can happen in all strcture of the society i.e. the police and the army. Surely the Whites will be forced to take sides just as Coloureds and Africans in other areas will take sides. This violence will affext the poor homeless people. That will be the death of non-racialism.

As an African myself, I won't stand idle while my brothers and sisters and are being killed for their legitimate rights. Eerster River is not an Island of Coloureds, as Coloureds were thought to believe.

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