On State Violence

By Richard Pithouse · 11 May 2011

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Picture: Halden Krog
Picture: Halden Krog

The sickening detail of how Andries Tatane was steadily murdered by the police in Ficksburg, shirtless, bleeding and bewildered, blow after blow after blow, has become a national memory. The television image from the next night’s news, showing Julius Malema striding into the High Court in Johannesburg with a suited private militia carrying M14 assault rifles, has also become part of the national consciousness. 

Malema’s carefully choreographed performance was designed as a public spectacle - to produce an image of a confident, suave and violent male power that has taken its place above the state. This was an image of a mode of power rooted in the material fact of its power rather than any legal or democratic legitimation. 

Police beatings at protests often begin as performances aimed at imparting a lesson before degenerating into a much more intimate expression of sadism. It’s as if the officer with a weapon and the right, in practice if not in principle, to use it begins with an awareness of being watched and ends with no awareness other than that of a weapon and a cowering body. But in so far as these attacks may begin as spectacles they are usually meant, strictly, for immediate local consumption. It’s typical for anyone with a camera to have it confiscated, or destroyed or to be forced to delete what they have recorded. 

The imparting of very local lessons in the simple pedagogy of who is in charge, and who is not, invariably lacks the elegance of Malema’s performance at the High Court. It is usually a matter of portly police officers straining to beat the ragged poor. But the basic idea, which is that superior material power is its own legitimation, is the same. 

Malema’s performance at the court was the most brazen coming out of a rapidly developing elite political aesthetic that flaunts its authoritarianism. The suggestion of fascism that hangs around Malema certainly draws from consumerism rather than the classicism that appealed to the Italian and German fascists in the 1930s. But the malls are the great temples of our time, the places where we go to sanctify ourselves, and so it could hardly be otherwise.

Malema is not an aberration. The public performance of blue light cavalcades, strutting bodyguards, Zuma’s choice of song and the scenes at his rape trial are all signs of a much wider presence of a politics that is rooted in the simple assertion of masculinised power. The incredible decline of the ANC under Zuma into an anti-intellectual populism is another. This anti-intellectualism has nothing to do with the fact that Zuma doesn’t have much formal education. There are plenty of deeply thoughtful and intelligent people who have never been near a university and anti-intellectualism is hardly unknown amongst the professoriate. Anti-intellectualism is an orientation to the world that has no necessary relation to access to formal education. It is a matter of choice and not circumstance.

The killing of Andries Tatane was not designed as a public performance but it became public because a journalist filmed it and a producer decided to screen it. Once it had been seen Bheki Cele’s spokesperson immediately insisted that "It will be important for us to treat those as isolated incidents instead of bringing them into one issue and cloud the matter around the issue of police brutality.” A week later Cele gave a strong defence of his call for the police to meet fire with fire. He followed that up with an attack on the media for reporting the murders of police officers differently to murders by officers. The police, he said, in full Orwellian mode, “are being persecuted” in South Africa.

There are many women and men in the police force that undertake their difficult and dangerous jobs with real integrity and courage. But that fact does not change the fact that this murder was certainly not an isolated incident. On the contrary it was part of a systemic and rapidly worsening crisis of police violence. No one has kept a comprehensive record of all the confirmed cases in which unarmed protestors have been killed by the police in South Africa after apartheid. But while a quick google search can’t substitute for a more careful attempt at establishing the facts it is not irrelevant that it shows up media reports of sixteen separate cases. There was one in 2000, two in 2004, one in 2005, another in 2008 and three in 2010. There have already been seven this year.  While six of those police murders must have imparted searing local lessons they barely made a ripple in the broader public consciousness because they were not on the television news.

Political repression at the hands of the police is not only a question of protestors being murdered. Protests are frequently banned, often attacked, usually without warning and, on occasion, with live ammunition. Arrests on trumped up charges, with ‘public violence’ being the most common, as well as bail conditions that restrict basic political rights, have long been routine. As the years pass accounts of torture are making their way from the activist media and into mainstream newspapers with more frequency.

In some neighbourhoods it’s become quite common for local councillors and ward committees or party structures to be able to simply direct the police to make arrests against people seen as dissidents even when they have expressed their dissent entirely lawfully. In some cases the police openly act for local power brokers, often business men that shade into gangsters and back into business men.

Of course police brutality is not always directed at activists and there’s not always a clear distinction between political and criminal cases. The general criminalisation of poor people, of spaces like shack settlements, of survival strategies like land occupations and self organised water and electricity connections, as well as the specific criminalisation of popular activism, often result in a blurring of the lines between activism and criminality. When evictions, most of which are unlawful, are carried out the state violence is often incredible

The state violence against people who find that they’ve been classified into the category of the ‘criminal’ tends to pass without too much opposition. Torture has become increasingly common. The number of fatal shootings investigated by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) in each financial year has escalated from 281 in 2005/06 to 556 in 2008/09 and 524 in 2009/10. In the last financial year the ICD investigated 1,278 deaths in police custody and as a result of police action. Some of these deaths would have been from natural causes and some would have been justifiable. But it must be recalled that police killings under apartheid reached a peak in 1985 at 763.

It has been reported that researchers have said that the increase in fatal shootings can be “traced back to KwaZulu-Natal, where there has been a 173 percent increase in five years – from 75 in 2005/06 to 205 in 2009/10.” David Bruce from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has commented that: “These statistics raise the question of whether sections of the police in KwaZulu-Natal may have adopted an approach which is defined by the belief that extra-legal methods are not only justified, but in fact necessary to address violent crime.” The recent history of police violence against popular politics in that province speaks to a similar assumption about the necessity of violence in the sphere of politics.

The myriad of micro-brutalities and authoritarianisms that have often sustained the ANC’s local power over the last ten years have, with notable exceptions, largely been ignored in the elite public sphere. The result has been a two tier political system with democracy and freedom for the rich and clientalism and authoritarianism for the poor. But the long separation, even segregation, between these two political spaces is now breaking down from the top and from the bottom. 

It’s breaking down from the bottom because of the gathering scale and strength of popular protest, due to the slow trickle down of access to technology, especially smart phones, and the increasing connections between popular struggles and middle class activists. It’s breaking down from the top because what is normalised in one space inevitably carries over into other spaces and because something has to give when a political project fails. And the more the repression and resistance that are both increasingly common at the base of society enter the elite public sphere the more the failure of the ANC becomes apparent in that sphere. 

Failed revolutions are always at risk of opportunists that make their deals with elites while promoting some sort of authoritarian populism that can capture and redirect popular anger. The hint of fascism that swirls around Malema’s bluster is not the only contender to take the space opened up in the ANC by the failure of the Zuma Presidency to come even close to rising to the urgent challenges of our society. But the liberals have no positive programme to offer people whose aspirations will not be met by the market, the communists are co-opted and while the trade unionists can see exactly where things are going they are far more closely tied to the middle classes than they are to the poor. The wild card is what will or will not cohere amidst the bubbling popular ferment sweeping the country.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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