Undoing the silences that become lies

(John McCann)

(John McCann)

On May 11, Karabo Mokoena’s body, burnt and mutilated, was found in a ditch, discarded along with the ordinary detritus of our lives, in Lyndhurst, Johannesburg. Her name took a very public place, along with Anene Booysen, Reeva Steenkamp, Nokuphile Khumalo, Rachel Tshabalala, Nosipho Mandleleni and so many others, in the grim record of what our society does to women.

On May 23, Mduduzi Tshivase, an ANC councillor, was assassinated at his home in eMachunwini in uMzimkhulu, southern KwaZulu-Natal. It was the third political assassination in the area in a month. There is no comprehensive list of political assassinations after apartheid. A 2013 report estimated that there have been about 450 political killings in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994. Four years on, the national figure must be considerably higher. The aggressive subordination of the state to private interest from below, a process that is often violent, seldom makes much of a mark in the elite public sphere.

On the evening of May 28, activist Mthunzi Zuma was assassinated at a land occupation in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

Early the next morning residents of the Foreman Road settlement in Clare Estate, Durban, organised a road blockade. The police chased protesters from the blockade into the settlement, which is perched on a steep and often muddy slope. Tear gas was thrown into the settlement. When it cleared, a two-week-old baby, Jayden Khoza, was dead.

In less than 24 hours the intense contestation over urban land in our cities, contestation that the state and a good deal of the elite public sphere frequently reads as a matter of criminality and conspiracy rather than justice, had taken two lives.

There are societies in which the assassination of an activist or the death of a baby as a result of police action predicated on an evident contempt for certain kinds of people would constitute an immediate crisis. People would take to the streets. A government could fall. But here, two deaths in less than 24 hours do not constitute a crisis, a scandal or a moment of rupture. The city centres are not occupied. There is no riot. The president does not address the nation.

An online list of people killed by the police during protests, a list that is no doubt far from comprehensive, and that does not include the striking miners massacred at Marikana, records more than 50 deaths since 1999.

As the sun went down in Durban on the same that Jayden died in Clare Estate people in other parts of the city were gearing up for a very different kind of confrontation. Rumours that children, or, in one formulation, “women and girls”, were being kidnapped and murdered for body parts resulted in migrants coming under sustained attack in KwaMashu. There were also attacks in Lindelani, Chesterville, Richmond Farm and Ntuzuma.

In KwaMashu roads were blockaded, cars were stoned, shots fired and shops burnt and looted. Many of the protagonists in some of these actions were children. At least one life was lost that night. The next day thousands of schoolchildren were reported to be standing off against the police in a protest at “violence against women”, violence that they believed to be perpetrated by migrants.

When the intolerable conditions under which life is so often lived in South Africa in 2017 do lead to moments of rupture there is no guarantee that they will take an emancipatory form. Romanticising the spontaneous breach with order and authority as the authentic politics of the oppressed risks complicity with the real possibility that people will turn on their neighbours rather than the structures that sustain oppression.

But organisation can also be a form of containment, capture and misdirection. A central part of our crisis is that forms of political organisation that claim to be progressive are often plainly not. Who can forget the grim spectacle of the South African Communist Party, trade union federation Cosatu and various other leftists lining up to offer their fealty to Jacob Zuma during his rape trial?

Again and again emancipatory aspirations are presented in militaristic, and often masculinist, rather than democratic terms. For many years factions of the academic and nongovernmental organisation left have invested considerably more energy in mobilising crude colonial tropes to protect their own (often raced) authority by defaming grassroots activists and organisations than in any positive political contribution. Socialism and nationalism, posited as redemptive futures that command obedience to the actors that claim them in the here and now, have all too often been misused to legitimate venalities and brutalities in the present.

The week before Jayden Khoza lost his life in Clare Estate a young man, Kwanele Mnyandu, was shot dead by security guards in uMlazi, near Durban. He was part of an ongoing attack on a low-cost housing development by nearby better-off residents. Gwajo Radebe of the Young Communist League was reported as opposing the low-cost housing development on the grounds that “those people will bring crime because they are coming from informal settlements” and declaring that “they should have been sent to Cornubia” (on the periphery of the city). In the phantasmagoria of our politics a communist can speak his contempt more frankly than a representative of capital.

We inhabit a society in which there is a long list of people — women classified into various categories, people thought to be defying gender norms, impoverished and working-class young men, migrants, prisoners, sex workers, the urban and rural poor — whose lives and deaths are often taken to be of little consequence. This hierarchy of who counts, and who doesn’t, is fundamentally entwined with the history and present of racial capitalism, and the ways in which it exploits and excludes.

Contempt is often built into the structure of our speech. It is built into the deep structure of our cities. It is foundational to the ways in which rural people are governed on a separate and unequal basis. Our institutions — the hospital, the university, the prison — often repeat this contempt, teach it and present it as virtue, necessity or common sense. It is enacted with bureaucratic and political scorn. It is defended and normalised with the languages of power, from claims about the market to security, tradition and the struggle. It is enforced with the rubber bullet, the gun and the penis.

It is assumed to be part of the natural order of things that different types of people should occupy certain kinds of spaces. It is presumed that it is part of the ordinary and unremarkable flow of life that certain people should meet certain kinds of fates.

A man sets out to look for a day’s work on two slices of white bread and a cup of sweet tea. A teenager, hungry and with little prospect for a fulfilling adult life, takes comfort in adding cheap heroin to a spliff. A woman braces herself for the journey home. Perhaps she also braces herself to enter the home. The prisoner braces for the guard, the sex worker for the police officer, the student for her meeting with her professor.

What Anna Julia Cooper, writing in 1872, called “undisputed dignity” is offered to all in terms of abstract rights, and often cynical mobilisations of the idea of the nation, but not, not at all, in terms of concrete social relations. In 1956, writing in the heat of a brutal colonial war, Frantz Fanon observed that “a nonviable society” is “a society to be replaced”. By any reasonable measure our society is, for millions of people, not viable and must, as a matter of urgent necessity, be replaced.

Our crisis is fundamentally consequent to the intersection of colonial racism and capitalism. But the political failures, and the fundamental corruption of the ANC, and the state it manages, has dramatically compounded the crisis and constrained the possibilities for effective responses. We cannot begin to deal with the crisis without creating and sustaining progressive political instruments and institutions.

This is not an easy task. And the monomania that often characterises our public discourse cannot make an effective road out of oppression and into justice. An apprehension of the weight of colonial history in the present that does not hold the ruling party, the state and other nodes of contemporary power to the highest standards of probity and justice can easily become an alibi for new forms of repression and predation.

At the same time a sole focus on the pathologies of the postcolony, a set of pathologies that the president is coming to repeat as farce, as pitiful caricature, can easily become an alibi for the weight of the colonial past in the present, not to mention the contemporary power of global capital and imperialism.

On its own, the logical force and clarity of Fanon’s statement about the necessity for a nonviable society to be replaced does not translate into equal clarity about how to attain a viable society. But Fanon also insisted that “silence becomes a lie” before “the fundamental requirement of dignity”.

Later on, in his last book, he wrote of the imperative to “create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. The recognition of the equal dignity of each human person should become the point of departure for an emancipatory politics, an axiom that guides action in the present as well as aspiration for the future.

This work — undoing the silences that become lies — is about a lot more than the president. Taking it seriously requires that we understand that we inhabit a society in which Zuma is as much symptom as pathogen.

Richard Pithouse is the senior researcher at the unit for the humanities at Rhodes University, and a visiting researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research

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