In 2012, after Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was gunned down in the street by a neighbourhood watch captain who went on to escape criminal sanction, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
It has since grown to dominate the response to police brutality meted out against the African-American community in the United States and has become a powerful political message that has made its way into statements and speeches given by President Barack Obama.
In the wake of the killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota in early July, Obama said: “When people say ‘black lives matter’, it doesn’t mean that blue lives don’t matter. But right now, the data shows that black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents. There is a particular burden that is being placed on a group of our fellow citizens.”
Incidents of police brutality and excessive responses to protests – replete with images of police dressed as if for battle – have been broadcast around the world. In this respect, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been wildly successful.
South African news organisations have also not missed the opportunity to give the matter publicity, where the campaign has been framed as a rightful response to an unfair policy targeting a vulnerable underclass of American society. This stands in contrast to how incidents of brutality by the South African Police Service are received in the local media and by the public.
Hard-and-fast numbers are hard to come by, which makes direct comparisons difficult, but the evidence is that our police are far more lethal than their American counterparts.
One study by GroundUp found, using data from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, that in 2013 a South African police officer was twice as likely to kill someone as US police were, a police officer in South Africa was 4.3 times more likely to be killed than in the US, and there were 17 068 murders in South Africa compared with 16 121 in the US.
In 2014-2015, 396 deaths were recorded as a direct result of local police action, with a further 244 deaths in police custody reported. The highest number of deaths were recorded in KwaZulu-Natal (22%), Gauteng (20%) and the Eastern Cape (18%).
The police minister reported to Parliament at the end of the 2014 financial year that he faced R16 587 235 in court claims for “police actions”, including assault and torture, and a further R1 474 767 for “shooting incidents”.
The reality is that police brutality has become an urgent issue in South Africa over the past few years, as the mounting protests have been met with increasing heavy-handedness from the police.
The horror of many of these incidents was captured in live footage that was later broadcast to the nation. The death of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg in 2011 and the brutal torture of Mido Macia in early 2013 and his subsequent death in police custody were caught on camera.
Almost no detail of the brutality of the 2013 Marikana massacre was spared as 34 miners were gunned down and another 78 wounded – a dozen of them in full view of a small army of media cameras.
In each of these cases, the seeds for the genesis of a greater awakening against the use of excessive force by the police were planted – the live footage of the shooting or torture, the subsequent media coverage, the faces of the victims who were readily identifiable. In each case, the attention eventually dissipated and the police officers involved got off scot-free.
Where is the outcry? Where is South Africa’s #BlackLivesMatter?
A #BlackSolidarityAction march to the US Consulate in Cape Town was planned for July 13. One of the organisers, Pastor Xola Skosana, says that events in the US are drawing attention to the plight of black bodies the world over.
“But I can’t say you’ll see a #BlackLivesMatter in South Africa. We aren’t a formal organisation; we are not formally aligned to #BlackLivesMatter in the States,” he says.
Protesters shout slogans during a protest in Times Square in support of the Black lives matter movement in New York on July 09, 2016. (AFP)
In recent years many of these incidents have taken on a political hue, as prominent members of grass- roots and marginalised groups begin to clash with the state, protesting against poor service delivery, patronage politics and mistreatment.
The clue to our general disinterest may lie in the identities of these people. They are political and social outsiders on the fringes of our society.
We don’t care because we don’t consider them to be “us”, says Abahlali baseMjondolo activist Muziwakhe Mdlalose.
“Government views [our shackdwellers’ movement] as illegitimate. Shackdwellers are viewed as thoughtless, as if we cannot reason like other people. But our main tactic for raising our grievances as citizens has been direct petitions to local government figures, who have ignored us,” Mdlalose says.
Although Abahlali manages to spring up in affected communities as shackdwellers around the country are hit by the same problems, Mdlalose says they struggle to build solidarity outside their immediate communities.
“We are viewed as pests by other citizens who have homes; they don’t ask how it is that we have to live in shacks in the first place. We are viewed as nontaxpayers, as if we make no contribution to society,” he says.
The betrayal of the victims comes from the media too. In the immediate aftermath of Marikana, the media were criticised for relying on police accounts to report on the incident, which were bent towards portraying the striking miners as the aggressors and instigators of the massacre.
University of Johannesburg journalism professor Jane Duncan wrote after Marikana: “The media have simply not done their due diligence on state repression of dissenting voices. As a result, South Africans have been deprived of information that allows them to develop a full understanding of the extent to which repression has become an entrenched feature of the political landscape.
“Why have these problems arisen? Undoubtedly, there is a class dimension to the problem, as journalists still tend to be drawn from a social base that does not experience the realities of working-class life, which includes a creeping de-democratisation of society that has manifested itself most starkly in poor communities.”
South Africa simply isn’t prepared to rise up for the rights of the poor. The framing of service delivery protests often shows this starkly: the concern in media reports and social chatter is often placed on the destruction of property and the disruption of “orderly life” such as when roads are blocked.
Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University, who has done extensive work with grassroots organisations, says the middle class is beginning to confront aspects of the repressive nature of the state, such as censorship at the SABC and state harassment of some middle class or elite people.
“But for many years there was very little interest in how impoverished people were treated and a degree of scepticism about claims of police brutality. On the odd occasion, when middle-class people were confronted with, say, reports of police torture or assault, they often just didn’t believe it,” he says.
“It is generally the case that impoverished people in South Africa – and especially people who are, for various reasons, particularly vulnerable (African migrants, sex workers, prisoners and people living and working informally) – are routinely governed by the day-to-day exercise of violence,” he says.
It should be noted that the police service labours under one of the world’s most dangerous crime environments, without adequate training and resources. This is exacerbating the problem, as police are often sent into volatile situations without being able to handle them correctly.
Marikana was one such moment, when units of the special task force and the tactical response team, trained in antiterrorism and tactical response strategies, were sent to quell a labour dispute.
Various other reports and commissions, including the O’Regan and Pikoli probe into policing in Khayelitsha, found that undertraining, understaffing and underresourcing are chronic problems within the police.
Until South Africa learns to build multiclass solidarity under the banner of protecting the rights of every single person, but especially the most vulnerable, then police brutality will continue to go largely unnoticed.
A South African #BlackLivesMatter movement will necessarily have to germinate from, and be led by, the poor and the working class. This is why many South Africans are not ready for it. We are too beholden to the neoliberal logic that treats people in the lowest earning percentiles as castaways and untouchables to be policed and shut away in ghettoes, and not as equal participants in the democratic project.
Pithouse says we cannot recover or renew the tradition of effective alliances across classes if we don’t rebuild a radical imagination that is democratic – and also if we don’t recognise that nongovernmental organisations very seldom have any credible claim to represent impoverished people and that democracy means that all people should be extended the right to represent themselves.
That radical imagination must necessarily drive us to reshape how we see and interlocute with those we’ve otherwise cast as outsiders in our society. Or, as Abahlali’s Mdlalose puts it: “If we were seen as equals by our fellow citizens, we would be getting different treatment from the police.”