/ 29 April 2020

Army and police violence spurs racial tensions

Safrica Health Virus
A woman runs away as members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) deploy during a protest over food parcels in Alexandra, Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. - (Marco Longari/AFP)

The excessive violence meted out to members of the public by soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) over the past weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown is fuelling racial tensions in South Africa, especially online. Their modus operandi exudes the long-lasting trauma of a country built on violence and structural oppression.

During the Covid-19 outbreak, social media has acted both as a haven for social solidarity and community altruism, and as a cesspool for fake news and fear-mongering. Over the past few weeks, however, tweets discussing Covid-19 have increasingly included angry and polarising content, particularly oscillating around a racially charged core.

Twitter is hardly the epitome of fact-checked, reliable, representative data sources, yet, as many people’s first port of call to launch their opinion into the void, it remains an important gauge of popular sentiment, nonetheless.

Since the first week of lockdown, #whites was trending on Twitter in South Africa, with some people blaming white people for supposedly bringing the Covid-19 virus to South Africa and others tweeting disgust over the inequality of excessive stockpiling. However, an overwhelming number of tweets have been expressing disgust at the apparent discrimination in how the SANDF treats white people versus black people. These are some examples:

“I will never forgive the ANC government, Cyril Ramaphosa, SANDF and SAPS [South African Police Service] for abusing the people during this lockdown, kicking and killing us, while whites were having a braai, and not a single one of them touched, I will never!” —

“I guess that colonial mind-control from apartheid era still works wonders today. SANDF and SAPS are scared to take action against whites but apply full force when it comes to Africans.” — @nKingLanga.

“This makes me very angry when contrasted with some visuals of treatment our fellow citizens in townships are receiving eg not allowed to stand in own yards.” — @mfullard2.

Since the first week of lockdown, videos and news stories have been circulated allegedly depicting the police and SANDF members brutally beating up black people for any level of lockdown deviation, while other videos have displayed white people nonchalantly enjoying their daily run or braai, seemingly unbothered by the national mandate to stay inside. In stark contrast to footage of police chasing, beating or arresting black people, white people appear to get away with little more than a stern talking to.

Whether these videos on social media are representative of broader behaviour is indeterminable, but on the internet, perceptions trump validity. With the Covid-19 pandemic exposing many structural cleavages and spurring racial tensions, it is likely that the post-pandemic South Africa will encounter new challenges and setbacks on the road to reconciliation.

Allegations of military and police brutality are rising, and investigations are being initiated in relation to their violence during the lockdown, including rape, murder and assault. The excessive violence — as many people are pointing out — appears only to be happening to black people.

Images of uniform-clad, weapon-bearing soldiers beating black people recall all too familiar memories of a violent past. During apartheid, the South African Defence Force comprised mostly white South African soldiers, who were tasked with enforcing the repressive laws of the apartheid regime.

Of course, the mandate for the military has been positively transformed in the post-apartheid era. The SANDF is now tied to a liberal, human rights-entrenched Constitution — bound to “support the people of South Africa” — including the defence of all who live in it. 

Specifically in this context, it has been deployed for the purpose of protecting health in an emergency setting, a far cry from the government-legitimised racial terror that marked the apartheid years. 

However, for many people in the older generation who grew up with a military to be feared, little seems to have changed. South Africa is still inherently a violent state, unable to meet deviance with anything but more violence.

The use of the apartheid-era sjambok in one video of the lockdown also harbours an ominous history. Originally purposed as an instrument for controlling animals, it has since become synonymous with the apartheid era, during which it took on a cruel and racialised legacy — as one of the common weapons wielded by white soldiers and police on black bodies. The fact that the hand with the whip has changed colour does little to placate, and highlights how black people are still treated as disposable and less valued by the police and military.

That the military was deployed only to the townships and not the suburbs gives a strong and racially skewed indication of where the government assumes the potential “troublemakers” reside. Although the less spatially dense suburbs are indeed less of a risk for the virus spreading than crowded townships, they do not merit exceptionalism from the law. For this lockdown to be effective, it requires the effort of all South Africans to stay at home.

The experience of some white people believing that they are an exception to the lockdown not only exposes selfish and individualistic attitudes, but also implies an inherently arrogant belief that they are above the law. To argue that the need to stretch one’s legs is paramount to national command is an utter insult to the conditions that the majority of South Africans are and will be facing in the months to come.

As South Africa is a constitutional state, these extraordinary acts of police brutality and racially discriminatory punishment cannot be allowed to become institutionalised. South Africa needs to foster a stronger culture of ubuntu, while also ensuring that civil society practices careful vigilance.

The lingering complexities of race issues serve to highlight how far the nation has to go to escape its violent past. It must be recalled that the enemy is the virus — not the South African people.

Kayla Arnold is an intern at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. She holds an honours degree in international studies from the University of Stellenbosch. Her work focuses on sociopolitical development, human rights and global health