‘the government is saying black lives don’t matter’: Opposing State Brutality in Cape Town

South African Police RG-12 Nyala. (Photo: Bob Adams, Wikipedia Commons image)

South Africans have been accused of protesting police violence in America whilst overlooking state brutality at home. Such critiques are important but it is also crucial that we don’t underestimate the opposition that exists to state violence, nor the fear that it provokes.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, under the knee of a white police officer in the United States, Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the globe. The African Union condemned his killing as part of the ‘continued discriminationatory practices against Black citizens’ in the country. President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed this sentiment, emphasising the need to tackle racism in South Africa and beyond.

And yet, as multiple commentaries have highlighted, there has been a failure to reckon with state violence at home. The lockdown regulations introduced in South Africa nearly three months ago were some of the strictest in the world. The announcement of these restrictions was quickly followed by another: the army would be joining the police on the streets to enforce the new rules.

Over the last eleven weeks, we have been hearing people’s experiences of the police through our Lockdown Diary Project, which includes 70 residents of occupied buildings, townships, suburbs and informal settlements across Cape Town. From the start of the project it was clear that those in Cape Town’s poorer areas simultaneously craved, feared and scorned the police: They craved what the police should offer: physical protection and a symbolic affirmation that, in the eyes of the state, their lives counted. But they feared and scorned the police that they encountered who were, all too often, unresponsive, brutal or corrupt. 

What we heard from our diarists echoed what we heard in the news. As arrests spiralled – with 230,000 cases opened by the end of May 2020 – so did the stories of state brutality. Across the country, at least thirteen people are reported to have died at the hands or in the custody of the security services, including Sibusiso Amos, Adane Emmanuel, Collins Khosa, Petrus Miggels, Elma Robyn Montsumi, and Ntando Elias Sigasa. To date, there has been no substantive accountability for their deaths.

Ramaphosa’s stance has been ambivalent at best: whilst he has pushed for a full inquiry into Khosa’s case he has also described the deaths and arrests during lockdown as ‘over-enthusiasm’ on the part of the army and police. Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele has rejected comparisons with America, claiming ‘there is no police brutality’ in South Africa and the exercise of force was not ‘racial’.

For its part, commentators have accused the public of either celebrating or tolerating state violence in the name of order. It is certainly true that South Africans are equivocal, at best, on the issue. Even those who are likely to be targets of such violence may be keen to harness state brutality  where they can. That said, it is important not to underestimate the opposition that exists to violence of the security services.

Reflecting on the state’s record during lockdown, diarists pushed back on the state’s violence. The call for accountability for lockdown deaths at the hands of the police and the army spanned the city. Nozuko in the informal settlement of Siyahlala condemned the ‘quietness’ of the government who was ‘not doing justice’. Calls for the perpetrators to be ‘investigated’ and ‘locked up’ echoed through the diary entries. As Lumkile in the township of Khayelitsha argued, the police and army had ‘abused’ and ‘killed’ those who they were ‘supposed to protect’.

Whilst some emphasised the need for greater training – particularly for the army – many thought that the issue ran deeper: Impunity for brutality was seen as an established trend in South Africa. As Thomas, in the CBD argued, ‘the attitude comes directly from Min Cele down’. Residents in Cape Town’s poorer areas, however, knew only too well that whilst the issue was systemic, the risk of state brutality was not evenly spread.

In post-apartheid South Africa, racism and class oppression continue to collide. ‘It gets to me’ wrote Sivuyile, in Khayelitsha, ‘… certain people are allowed to get away with killing black people. If it was a white man it would be a different story. It’s like the government is saying black lives don’t matter’. Another diarist agreed, ‘‘I have seen brutal acts by the police to unarmed citizens …yet they can be so civil with white people its like different Lockdown rules apply to ‘them’’. As reports on the Lockdown remind us, racism and class oppression do not operate alone, intersecting with multiple other factors like homophobia, xenophobia, ableism and transphobia to compound people’s risk of violence.

Many drew links between the deaths during Lockdown and the shooting of 43 miners at the Marikana Massacre in 2014, the killing of Andries Tatane in 2011 and the deployment of the army in the Cape Flats. Looking beyond South Africa’s borders, they also pointed to the protests spreading from the US across the world: State violence – and the impunity that facilitated it – was a global issue.

In short, whilst the Black Lives Matter protests may not have instigated widespread political uprising or change in South Africa, this is not necessarily an indicator of the opposition that people feel towards state brutality, nor the fear that, in the words of Jazzy D, in Woodstock, ‘I could be next’. 

Listening to our diarists voices is important, but, opinions alone will not change the status quo. When the pursuit of security depends on the dehumanisation of others, that quest is as deadly as it is futile. In South Africa this logic is deeply embedded in the everyday life of this unequal state. Finding new ways forward will take political imagination, commitment and sacrifice from both state and society. It will require substantive solidarity from those who do not face police brutality and across the multiple and diverse sectors of society that do. Whether the current crisis will catalyse this response remains to be seen. 

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