Police violence in South Africa is frequent. Yet, there is something about how it happens in present circumstances that makes it feel different. One reason for this might be how the BlackLivesMatter uprisings of last year had an immediate effect on transforming people’s consciousness. Now people are alive not just to the incidences of police violence which regularly occur, but are equipped with a vocabulary to explain its injustice. In some cases, this understanding crystallizes into the concrete demand that the police are defunded, or abolished altogether.
Perhaps then, flowing directly from this is the second, curious thing about contemporary police violence: it feels more and more irrational. Importantly, the history of police brutality is the history of its senselessness. Even in tense, protest conditions that turn violent, the likelihood of violence is proven to increase by the mere presence of police who make the situation unnecessarily confrontational. What is curious about the latest, reported cases of police brutality is that they all involve decidedly non-confrontational situations, where the police themselves unashamedly provoked conflict.
The recent, ongoing resurgence of student protests in South Africa are an instance of this. Students across university campuses have been demanding that all eligible students (even those with historical debt owed to the university), are allowed to register. At one demonstration this month outside the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Mthokosizi Edwin Ntumba was shot and killed by the police. The mainstream media did much to emphasize that he was a passer-by, but in a shared Freudian slip initially began by describing the deceased as a civilian—as if the peacefully protesting students were not civilians. This is revealing of the collective unconscious of the media class and the establishment it represents. Students, engaged in their inalienable right to protest, and engaged in legitimate political speech, are in the media’s imagination some kind of enemy combatant. (A similar thing just happened in the United Kingdom, where a vigil held in honor of Sarah Everard, a woman allegedly murdered by a police officer, was violently shut down by police officers).
Now, this isn’t to attribute what’s happening as the result of some deliberate, conscious plot from the ranks of the police; it is not as if they are receiving direct orders from higher-up to act more belligerently. (South Africa’s Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, has done the usual routine of casting the officers responsible for Ntumba’s death as rotten apples in an otherwise decent batch). Rather, the police are impersonally driven to behave in this way by the totality of capitalism itself, which is why reforms will never really work. The police exist to serve and protect capitalism, to safeguard the private property system upon which it is based. That’s the goal of “public order policing” which always attempts to disperse crowds—not because people are threats to each other in those scenarios, but because people are seen as threats to lifeless things around them called property.
So, when capitalism is in as deep and devastating a crisis as it is now, when its legitimacy is becoming more widely questioned and its inequality painfully felt, so too, will its enforcers acutely feel the threat of disorder that arises from this discontent. Everyone is restless, and the system is anxious. The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented situation where supposedly by consent, populations gave up their rights to movement and association in the interests of public health. For a period, social antagonism became invisible because the typical arena of its staging—the streets—were foreclosed. In this period of what was basically a state of emergency, politics was neutralized and a momentary national interest—curbing the spread of the virus—was prioritized. This isn’t to say there was no contestation in the last year, but rather that all of it happened within the bounds of the new national interest.
What is happening now is that politics is returning. With a year of practice, the pandemic is becoming less of a risk to engaging in political activity, and the accumulated grievances around its mismanagement make it for many, a risk worth taking. From the state’s perspective then, the temporary respite is over and the public is a troublesome nuisance again. The annoyance from government functionaries at once again being widely disliked, and challenged, has become palpable. For instance, deflecting criticism that the budget he tabled to parliament is an austerity agenda, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni declared that, “There is no need to be apologetic about it. There is no social contract to say there must be an increase each year. The allocations we made are what we can afford.”
Mboweni’s budget was well-received by South Africa’s liberal press—another revealing fact. High-minded sermons about why cutting spending is important for “stability” are the mirror image of talk about why the police are required for “order.” Today’s authoritarianism won’t come in an overnight fell-swoop as some people’s nightmarish visions of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia suggest. Rather, it’ll come through the return of the repressed. Remember that neoliberalism arose through dictatorship in Chile, and as Grace Blakeley instructs us, capitalism has always been authoritarian, but “one reason the authoritarianism of the system has been so easy to ignore is that its abuses largely took place out of sight, inflicted on those least able to resist.”
South Africa has been in crisis for some time now, and the decay of its social contract has been obvious ever since former president Jacob Zuma’s corruption-ridden regime came to power a year after 2008’s Wall Street crash. From then, we witnessed the state’s murder of striking miners at Marikana in 2012, the violent suppression of students at the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016. And now, students are back to make the same declaration—but what’s different is that some are relating campus struggles to anti-capitalist ones, declaring that #AusterityMustFall too.
It’s hard to predict what course these protests will take—but one of its chief slogans, “Asinamali”, which in isiZulu means “We have no money”—demonstrates its potential to not only address the barriers to entry of the increasingly commodified university, but the barriers to living in an increasingly commodified world. Many have called the first #FeesMustFall wave the most serious challenge to the post-apartheid political order, but its vital limitation was an inability to connect to broader working-class struggles. That link has now been forged in a way that wasn’t there before.
Another thing to overcome is the pathological exceptionalism peculiar to South African political consciousness—of thinking our police are particularly cruel, our higher education system particularly inaccessible, our state particularly corrupt. Being able to see how our problems are more or less the same as everywhere else in the world empowers us to draw lessons from those who are fighting them earnestly—and whether it was in Chile in 2019, the US in June last year, Nigeria in October last year, India at the start of this year, or Myanmar right now—one lesson endures: don’t cede the streets. We don’t always have to take to them, but they are ours for the taking.
We are stronger than we think, and that is why they fear us.