We owe it to the 1976 generation to do better
Every black life matters. In a country where black men and women struggled against and overcame an institutionalised system that regarded them as fit only for exploitation, black lives are now more cherished than diamonds, platinum, gold and other precious metals.
But this is a mere wish.
Not all lives matter to the same degree, and black lives matter very little in democratic South Africa, as in other parts of the world where black men are killed willy-nilly by police to protect the interests of the dominant capitalist, racialised and patriarchal classes. It is also undeniable that black men and women are killed in high numbers by other black men for the crumbs from the tables of the powerful.
Global racist and patriarchal capitalism organises the value of people, and how much each of our lives counts for, on a hierarchy from the most valuable at the top to the surplus people at the bottom.
At the top sit the captains of multinationals, global sports organisations such as Fifa and globe-trotting politicians, who live in security bubbles with their every whim indulged. At the bottom are the homeless and abandoned who scavenge for food at garbage dumps.
Still, you would think the life of a rising superstar footballer such as Senzo Robert Meyiwa would be regarded as more valuable than those of nobody footballers and the nameless multitudes.
You would imagine that a young man whose life was inspiring to boys and girls trapped in the degradation of informal settlements and townships would be treated as more valuable in a society desperately in need of hope and affirmation.
You would be mistaken.
Twenty-seven-year-old Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Meyiwa, whose star was shooting up the sky as Bafana Bafana’s future first choice number one, was shot dead on October 26 2014 while visiting his girlfriend, singer Kelly Khumalo, in her mother’s house in Vosloorus.
According to police statements, two men entered the house and one man waited outside. An altercation ensued and the footballer was killed. The police, who tend to be perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable, staged a large-scale search for suspects. A young black male, Zanokuhle Mbatha, was arrested and appeared in court, but charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. No other person has been tried for the murder.
So, another black man’s death goes unresolved.
The question troubling us is: Would it be different if the person who had been killed was a white sports superstar or, indeed, any other white person?
Perhaps we are wrong. Police incompetency knows no racial and class limits, but we suspect that the case would have, by now, moved forward. The police once again seem to be relatively lackadaisical because Meyiwa’s black life was not really high up on the ladder of the racialised and economic value of life.
Meyiwa came into our minds as we celebrated Youth Day, a day intended to commemorate young people’s heroic sacrifices for the liberation of South Africa.
Given the unsolved murder, the fact is that all of us who believe in social justice have to keep reminding ourselves and others that in this country, as in other parts of the increasingly unequal world, we have a way to go before all lives are treated as equally deserving of basic dignity and respect. Knowing the facts of how a person died and holding someone accountable, as well as bringing perpetrators to justice, is part of the affirmation of that inherent worth.
But it seems that the fact of blackness, just as in Marikana, where scores were gunned down simply because they demanded to be paid a living wage, renders a person more vulnerable to violent death.
Instead of enjoying the freedom denied their parents and grandparents, it appears that more young black people like Meyiwa have to die before our rulers realise that blackness is not yet free.
Young black men and women, because they have an elevated risk of dying young, live with an empty freedom. Young black people, because they have on average a lower chance of a long, healthy and happy life, live with an unfulfilled promise of democracy.
What the youth of 1976 struggled against – education for servitude, economic deprivation, racial inequality, reduced chances at a quality life, and what Steve Bantu Biko referred to as spiritual poverty – remain issues today’s youth grapple with.
We, young and old, black and white, owe it to the sacrifices made by the 1976 generation for this democracy to do something about the pervasive structural, symbolic and episodic violence that face black youth daily if we are going to make freedom meaningful.
Youth Day ought to remind us that black lives, like all lives, matter.
Kopano Ratele is a professor at Unisa and the Medical Research Council-Unisa violence, injury and peace research unit. Mbuyiselo Botha is a government and media specialist at Sonke Gender Justice and a commissioner of the Commission for Gender Equality