By Richard Pithouse · 17 Apr 2011
There are moments when a society has to step back from the ordinary thrum of day to day life and ask itself how it has become what it has become. There are times when a society has to acknowledge that it cannot go on as it is and ask itself what must be done to set things on a new and better course.
The historians of our children and grandchildren’s generation will write the history of our failure to redeem the promise of our democracy and the struggles that brought it into being. They will debate the significance of the various moments that have marked the plunge from the soaring language of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution to the stupid, ugly, strutting fascist camp of Bheki Cele and Julius Malema.
We can be sure that they will agree that when we confronted, for the first time, the sickening spectacle of an unarmed man being murdered by the police on the television news, a decisive point was reached. When the police murdered Andries Tatane in Ficksburg on Wednesday they murdered a man who had, with thousands of others, taken to the streets in protest at the unconscionable contempt with which the poor are treated in this country.
All these years after the end of apartheid, abundant rivers of Johnny Walker Blue have been drunk while millions live in shacks without water, electricity or toilets. We still have a two tier education system that condemns most of us to a precarious, dangerous and difficult life. More than 50% of young black men and 60% of young black women are unemployed. This is an entirely unviable and unjust situation. The protest in Ficksburg, and the ongoing national rebellion of the poor of which it is part, are an entirely legitimate response to the sheer contempt with which the ANC treats the people in whose name its leading members grow richer as their language and the public performance of their power becomes more infused with violence.
Andries Tatane’s sister, Seipati, told reporters that he was ‘forever reading books’ and that he volunteered to help the matrics with maths and science at the local school. He helped, we are told, the Boitumelo High School to improve its pass rate from 38% to 52%. A witness said that he was singled out by the police after asking them why they were targeting an elderly protestor with their water cannon. He had planned, as is his unquestionable right in a democracy, to stand as a candidate in the local government elections next month.
The officers who murdered Tatane were still on duty in Ficksburg on Friday. The day after Tatane was killed Elizabeth Mtshali, due to give birth in a month’s time, was shot in the neck by the police with a rubber bullet while carrying a plastic drum to fetch water. At times like this you’d be forgiven for thinking that the shack settlements of South Africa were in occupied Palestine.
Of course Andries Tatane is not the first unarmed person to have been murdered by the police during a protest after apartheid. In fact he’s not even the first person from Ficksburg to be killed in this way.
More than ten years have passed since Michael Makhabane, a student from Ficksburg, was murdered by the police on the campus of the former University of Durban-Westville during a protest against the exclusion of poor students from the university. He was shot in the chest at point black range and from above with a shot gun.
In August 2004 around four and half thousand young people, many of them school pupils, from Intabazwe in Harrismith occupied the N2 in protest. On the first day of the protest twenty four children were injured, thirty eight were arrested and a seventeen year old boy, Teboho Mkhonza, was shot dead.
But 2004 was the year in which the rebellion of the poor was just beginning. By 2009 the number of protests was ten times higher than it had been in 2004 and it was still higher last year. There is no record of the number of people that have been killed as this rebellion has spiralled around the country. The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is, plainly, neither a trustworthy or effective organisation. It has often been deliberately obstructive and has failed to investigate many clear instances of serious police repression including torture. But its 2010 report confirms that, despite its obvious failings, it investigated 1,769 cases of people dying in police custody or as a result of police action last year. Let’s be clear. The state is, cheered on by Bheki Cele’s swaggering machismo, waging some kind of war on its people.
We’re just under a month away from the local government elections and things may well get worse in the coming weeks. Elections are generally a dangerous time for grassroots activists and poor people’s movements but local government elections are invariably the most dangerous time.
On election day in 2004, Landless People’s Movement activists were tortured in the Protea South police station in Soweto. The day after the 2006 local government elections, the police shot Monica Ngcobo dead and seriously wounded S’busiso Mthethwa in Umlazi in Durban. They claimed that Ngcobo had been shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet. They lied, as their spokespeople habitually do. She was shot in the back with live ammunition.
The elections next month will be bitterly contested in many areas with various parties running credible candidates, popular independent candidates entering the fray and boycotts being organised. If decisive action is not taken to persuade the police that their job is to facilitate rather than repress the right to protest, we may have to add more names to those of Solomon Madonsela, murdered by the police in Ermelo in February, and Andries Tatane, murdered by the police in Ficksburg last week.
In 1976 Sam Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson being carried away from the police by Mbuyisa Makhubo planted a clear image of the brutality of apartheid in the global imagination. Events without enduring public images are often only private traumas. But an event with a public image, like the murder of Hector Pieterson, can divide a society into a collective awareness of a time before and after a public trauma.
In October 2005 two teenage boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were killed by electrocution while fleeing the police in Paris. France was wracked with riotous protest for the next two months. In December 2008 Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a fifteen year old boy, was killed by the police in Athens leading to a month long insurrection across Greece. In December last year Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia after enduring one humiliation too many at the hands of the police. The consequences of the reaction to his death are still playing out in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Swaziland.
In the past it has been possible for much of South African society to deny the increasing brutality with which our police repress grassroots dissent. The police have generally had a vastly better capacity for public relations than any poor people’s organisation and so the average newspaper reader is usually confronted with the police spin on events or, at best, two very different versions of what has happened when a body is left battered or broken after a protest. But the video footage of the murder of Andries Tatane leaves no room for doubt about what kind of society we have become.
The ANC likes to pretend to itself that it is a revolutionary organisation that, alone, can claim fidelity to the struggles against apartheid. It likes to pretend to itself that all opposition is motivated by malicious reactionary schemers. It is time that those of us in and out of the party face up to the plainly evident fact that the most dangerous reactionaries are the ones leading the country. The new struggles to ensure that every woman and man in our country is treated with the dignity that every human being deserves are entirely legitimate.
The horror; the horror.
Thank you for writing this.
This is an incredible article and one of the most powerful things I have read in a very long time. I suspect it will stay in my head (and heart) for many, many days to come.
Article by Richard Pithouse
I think this is a very powerful article and I hope you publish it in the press. It needs to be read by a wider public.
Anti-ANC Isn't Enough
While I whole heartedly agree with you Richard, the reduction of South Africa's social crisis to 'THE ANC' and its flaws is getting tiring really as if the roots of these problems are to singularly blamed on the arrogance of a couple of upwardly mobile blacks. The state is in crisis yes, but so is the society as a whole. I know you already know this, and we dont have to rehash the arguments about white capital in South Africa. But it is getting tiring.
The matrix of power from which the ANC draws are the same property relations that preserve the hegemony of middle-class people like us. Ok ok, this does not mean that the state is absolved from Tatane's death. I do not imply that at all. The buck stops with the police minister and the president. However the conditions that allow the minister to act this way are conditions of compromise. Moral high ground by South Africa's educated left wing rings a bit hollow at times.
Not to doubt the righteous anger that is flowing out. But Tatane was a black man in a township with problems that the state cannot resolve because of this economy. Yes they could deal with corruption, and service delivery. But this will not provide jobs, or decrease crime levels, or provide the kind of social stability necessary for the Tatane's to be able to put aside their community obligations and just live life.
So yes, this is a crisis. But no, it is not of the ANCs making.
I hear so little about land reform, about existing property relations, about the very colonial structures that continue to precipitate the overall social crisis we face. To speak of abundant rivers of Johnny Walker flowing, without speaking of the feasts and indulgences of the professional classes, whatever their ideology, who also partake in the disproportionate consumption of the nation's wealth. Yes, you are right. But the constant anti-ANCism just has a reductive and reactionary shallow ring to it.
For the past 17 years, police brutality has been an unfortunate hangover from the past. Yes, today the police do collude to protect other state function. But if you look at these horrendous incidents, you find that they have been happening. ANC strongmen in certain places have definitely cracked down on opposition. But they have not yet got some direct hold over an already brutal police force as to just sic them on people at will.
Again, without disagreeing, I think your argument stands, but also draws on the reduction of our social crisis to 'THE ANC'. In the aftermath of high food prices, the global recession, petrol price increases AND the failure of government to deliver, and the economy to create jobs that the middle-class take for granted, OF COURSE we have a social crisis. Police brutality did not come about because of Cele, although he has done little to reverse it, perhaps even make it worse. But it is an entrenched culture in any case.
The ANC Was Elected to Deal with White Capital
I think that this last comment is more than a little lame. Zizek makes the point, brilliantly I thought, that to hold oneself above the political fray while diagnosing deeper forces at work than those about which people are actually arguing and struggling its ultimately to adopt a radical posture that sanctifies the self while being politically meaningless.
The ANC was elected to deal with white capital and the colonial legacy. It is failing to do so. But it is exactly because the ANC was (and will be again) elected that it is the proper target for political pressure.
The only way to discipline capital and to deal with the colonial legacy is via the state. There is no other way. Therefore the party elected to control the state has an historic political responsibility to which they must be held.
The people have leverage over the ANC (and other parties). They have no leverage over capital or the history of colonialism. Political parties must be the target of our political critique exactly because they are the only way that we can actually deal with capital and the colonial hangover.
To say that we must deal directly with capital without the mediation of a party and the state is to adopt a meaningless radical posture.
And we should not forget that it was the ANC itself that decided to militarise the police and to back Malema as he arrived in court with his own private militia.
Capital and the colonial history are part of the deep structure of our society. But the ANC has agency in how it chooses to respond. This agency must be recognised and taken on. To deny agency to the ANC (as Naomi Klein does in her chapter on South Africa in the Shock Doctrine) can collapse into a form of racism where all evil, and therefore agency, must ultimately be white and the ANC appear almost as innocent children in a world driven by deeper forces than they can comprehend. This is nonsense. We all make choices. And, as I said, it is only political parties that can capture that state and discipline (or not) capital. That is why the entire left tradition is focused on the mediation of the party - rather than some sort of direct attack on capital itself.
There is a reason why all these popular protests are aimed as the ANC and not capital or the colonial legacy. They are aimed at the ANC because the people know that that is where they can effectively exercise pressure and because they know that it is within the power of the ANC to actually reform society in the interests of the people as a whole.
ANC vs Capital
To say that it is the ANC that must discipline capital is either hopelessly naive or just plain fatalist.
In fact, to say that that is why it was elected is laughable. Which part of the CODESA files did you read? I think even Patrick Bond missed that memo - the ANC being elected to deal with capital...
This position is no different from COSATU's endless public sector strikes while it battles to confront capital in the private sector; where jobs and wages are shrinking and capital is looting economies in more extreme ways while shifting the social cost onto the state and communities.
Furthermore, put yourself in 1990 - 1993 and you tell us how you would have disciplined recaltricant white capital under conditions of civil war.
Or perhaps you were there, trying to negotiate something fragile and contradictory with only a spent force and people being massacred daily.
The ANC is not the state, although it would like to be. in reality, the South African state is a junior partner to capital.
Yes the ANC has agency. It has chosen to pursue a strategy of elite accummulation.
But even the word 'choose' is quite dicey, for who is the ANC that chose and what. Within the fabric of communities, the ANC is both a party, a network, factions, and a tradition, albeit contested.
Unlike the DA, or other parties, the ANC isn't just a political party, its a social institution, an institution that is falling apart, as it should.
People are attacking the ANC for it didn't deliver basic services, not because it did not discipline capital. At least, that is not the explicit cry.
At least even Mafeje recognised this years ago, the contradictory impulse within organic black political struggles is for inclusion into capitalist frameworks, not for their overthrow.
The complaints on the street are about blatant black elite accummulation at the expense of the delivery (i.e. corruption) of basic services, even though the depth of the pinch is made acute by the preexisting structural relations of inequality in land and employment.
Let's try Zimbabwe, what Moyo calls the radicalised state.
Short of that, what we do in S.A. is a joke. What the 'left' cries for in its moral position or whatever, is a joke.
Get a bunch of people to invade land wholesale. Even your backyard.
I have no problems with radicalised states. But let's not pretend its an easy choice to initiate the kind of righteous radicalism that we speak of only in writing.
There's no need to get personal about the comments made in response to the article, it is out here precisely to draw discussion.
The point isn't to stake out a position against what Richard is saying. if it comes across that way.
Along with Zizek, perhaps we can think about the possibility of the black national bourgeiosie committing class suicide in the face of white capital and white middle class privilege.
Hardly going to happen. We want to be like whites. I havent met one white left wing colleague who has given anything up as a demostration of what other whites could do although they constantly point fingers at the ANC.
Ok, let's wait for the ANC to find the agency to righteously take something from white south africans then.
Its a silly way of looking at the whole thing. Our social crisis is complex. (This is not to absolve the ANC of its role.)
If you look at the complaints submitted to the ICD over the past decade, it will become clear that the police have been quasi-militarised in an case.
Pinning the blame on one crazy Commissioner whose major impact has been a change in stationery and door titles is quite facile.
Cele is to blame in so far as he has worsened the police by not changing the culture, not by being the genesis of this brutal culture.
Yes Cele was a bad choice. No he didnt invent jackboot style dealings with protestors.
The police are not improving they are getting worse.
But pinning it on one man is the same logic that AfriForum takes on Julius Malema.
Social movements on the ground KNOW that Tatane's killing is the outcome of years of police brutality against protestors.
Buck stops with Cele for not having the sophistication or ability to change these things.
Facebook Group in Honor of Andries Tatane
There is a Facebook Group in Honor of Tatane. The address is http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_209986449029565
Good article...Pity the writer shows his plain unimagination with his anti-semitic smite ("occupied Palestinian territory")
For once, regardless of status, it would be cool to have a South African scholar compare this type of cruelty to the Communist Chinese, the Cuban Castro's or maybe, in this case, a better example would be our friend, Bob Mugabe.
But that would be asking too much in the name of research.
It is the little things that make me laugh at the people who lecture our kids.
A Beautiful Response to a Terrible Incident
This is beautiful and powerful writing which will, I am sure, move many people as it moved me. It certainly is time for us to stand up and say 'enough'.
Unconscionable contempt for the poor
The conduct of the police demonstrates convincingly that we have inherited the militarization of the apartheid state in dealing with the ligitimate protest of the poor.
All the poor are asking for is that their voice should be heard.
Our arrogant contempt and distrust for the poor is so deep that we even adopted an electoral system, at local level, that gave overall power and control to the parties than the residents for whom the governance structures were created.
Ideally the local government governance structures must represent, and be accountable to, the residents. The current electoral system unfortunately serves the interests of the political parties. They use this power to act as employment agencies and dispense patronage to their party sympathisers and cronies. They have indeed perfected the wealth accumulation strategy designed by the aparheid state to benefit the elite and politically connected.
The action by the Ficksburg police is not isolated. They serve the same purpose of their apartheid predecessors which was to make sure that the poor do not disturb the elite as they enjoy the benfits of class distinction. The best achievement so far after 17 yrs of democracy is to lead the world in income and wealth inequality.
I bow my head in shame.
The Mood is Growing
The ANC has shown itself incapable to effect the right policies to address our country