We are in a country that is in denial in the sense that there is not recognition of the scale of the crisis of violence, predominantly violent masculinities, manifested in schools, shops, in the streets, by the police and also by the public in various situations. Legal and other action has followed a story that was apparently initially published in the Daily Sun showing an abridged version of video footage of a woman in Limpopo being beaten up and sexually abused after allegedly shoplifting. Even the short excerpt and recorded sounds are shocking.
It is noteworthy that a female security official video recorded the assaults and egged the men on in their assaults (and this buying into masculine violence and other aspects of patriarchy is another facet of the problems we face.)
The leaders of this country and the public in general, in their discourse, admire tough action, whether against alleged criminals or in sport or on the roads and in a range of other areas of our social life. We hear this on radio talk shows and can read it in various media.
This is not peculiar to South Africa but this is where we live and we need to try to understand how deep seated it is. This country was established through violence and the way the apartheid state and its predecessors settled issues were through wreaking violence against the black people of this country. When all methods of peaceful protest were exhausted liberation movements took up arms against the apartheid state. (I know some may disagree on ‘exhausted’ or that that justified armed struggle, but that we can argue another time)
It is true that in taking up arms the possibility of reasoning and open organisation were not excluded and public activity continued where it was possible and reasserted itself especially in the late 1970s and the 1980s. But the legacies of armed struggle are not adequately recognised.
On the side of forces of resistance there has long been a celebration of military valour (remember the beginning of Radio Freedom with AK 47 shots and singing hamba khahle UmKhonto…?). Personally, I do admire the bravery of those who were willing to attack the apartheid state, notably police stations and military installations.
We are now supposedly at peace. But the doctrine of non-violence has not been adequately diffused. The value of peace has not been celebrated or internalised. In the early 1990s the unbanning of the ANC and its allies was coupled with the unleashing of a range of forces, which attacked the organisations and their followers. This resulted in the establishment of self-defence units and buried arms re-surfacing.
The 1994 elections and the new constitution should, in theory, have put an end to militarism, but it has not. Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros once spoke of the crisis of crime and violence possibly making it necessary to ‘pick up the spear’ again.
In other words, the imagery of the armed struggle is one of the resources drawn on in a time of peace. It is correct that violent criminality has to be stopped, but keeping the peace is very different from armed struggle. A policeman uses force in accordance with the character of the threat that is faced and this is not through an ongoing use of ‘the spear.’ Once the danger is passed the baton is returned to one’s belt or wherever it is kept and the gun is returned to the holster.
But one has the situation of continued war -like mobilisation as emblematic of security in this country, not only in the public sector but also private security where the ‘armed’ part of the response is a key selling point.
One of the lesser-noted features of the ‘war against crime’ is that the victims are primarily black people, whether as injured or dead or imprisoned. They are over-represented in relation to their proportion of the population, just as they are over-represented amongst the unemployed, the poor and those without resources needed for their health and wellbeing. In other words, the trajectory of black people continues to be similar to that under apartheid.
I do not know how to address the broader strategic issues in precise terms or with specific prescriptions. But insofar as the culture of rough, tough behaviour lives not only amongst the police at Marikana or security guards but also in schools and in homes of ‘ordinary people’ we can look at ourselves and those we can influence. We can try to capture the imagery of people (like Chief Albert Luthuli, for example) who represent alternative models of leadership, combinations of strength and gentleness towards others. We also need to look at our own lives, because growing up as we have, there are some habits we all have to ditch as part of building a different cultural climate.