Black Lives Matter? Which black lives?

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States in broad daylight set off expressions of outrage and solidarity worldwide. South Africans joined the world in expressing anger at the fact that a cop murdered an unarmed civilian and, initially at least, merely got suspended — despite the fact that mobile footage was readily available to prove that the police had committed a crime.

Not so long after, as South Africans took to social media to add their voices to calls for justice for George Floyd, local critics pointed out that they wished citizens were as quick and unambiguous in their responses to the death of Collins Khosa at the hands of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and law- enforcement officials.

Khosa is one of 11 citizens who died at the hands of the army, police or law-enforcement officials during the Covid-19 lockdown. More recently, a teenage ran from police officers enforcing the lockdown and then drowned in a dam.

The argument by critics is that South Africans should be equally as outraged at the fact that police brutality affects black lives disproportionately in our country as they are about racist violence in the US. Viewfinder points out that police brutality is a problem that preceded the lockdown. It reports that an average of one person is killed by police every day and that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is not coping with its caseload.

This effectively means that police are not being held to account for abuses, at least the ones that are being reported. There are clearly crucial problems with the ways in which the South African Police Service (SAPS) is led and held to account. The same applies to the leadership and accountability of the SANDF during its deployment in our communities during the pandemic.


But the question stands: Why do we see such a disparity in responses to violence experienced by black people locally when compared to the uptake of social-media responses to events in the US? One answer may be US cultural and media imperialism: US news and social media dominate news media and dominate agenda-setting practices to a significant extent.

However, both local and international news carriers have actually reported on a number of disturbing cases in South Africa: from the death of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg, to the killing of Marikana miners to the brutality of security forces during the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests, to the death of 11 people during the lockdown.

Citizens also took to Twitter and Facebook during the lockdown, some reporting on the City of Cape Town’s evictions in Makaza and the establishment of a homeless people’s shelter in Strandfontein during the Covid-19 lockdown. Most of the evictees and homeless people in the shelter were black, in the broad and inclusive sense. We cannot blame “the media” for poor civic responses — as if the media were one homogenous entity.

Instead, we need to consider the premium of black lives in the South African context, especially those of economically marginalised subjects. Recently, when a former Model C and private school posted a message of solidarity for Black Lives Matter, former learners tweeted their experiences of racism at this school as a response.

High school learners at Herschel Girls School High, Bishops Diocesan College and Durban Girls College recently spoke out about racism at their schools. Bishops matric students issued a comprehensive list of demands relating to more equitable approaches to race and gender politics at the school.

As the lockdown eases, we are also seeing a resurgence of gang violence in Cape townships, claiming the lives of both adults and children. Recently, Bonteheuwel children held a candlelight vigil after a two-year old child and his father were murdered in a drive-by shooting.

The move to lockdown level three seems to be a return to “normal”, when residents are held hostage to gang warfare, and we have yet to see effectively co-ordinated strategies to address this crisis systematically at a provincial and national level.

Although it is clear that concerted efforts are being made to reinvent the National Prosecuting Authority so that it may eradicate endemic corruption that hampers the SAPS, government departments and state- owned entities, the questions stands: Why are citizens not on the streets more often to protest the disproportionate ways in which violence affects black, working-class lives in particular? Perhaps this is the answer: Violence affects black, work- ing-class lives in particular.

Africa Check reports that 64.2% of African/black and 41.3% of coloured South Africans live in poverty. We need to recognise that the violence of neoliberal economics translates into scenarios in which it is acceptable for the City of Cape Town to evict residents during a lockdown that is meant to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic, or government officials believe that it is acceptable for soldiers or the police to “klap” citizens to death.

Scenarios in which 34 mineworkers can be shot to death in plain view of journalists and a government bows to pressure to ease the lockdown before Covid-19’s projected peak in September because … the economy.

Likewise, the push to open schools frees parents to service the economy, notwithstanding the associated public health risks and indications that many black rural and urban township schools are not ready — a context in which, since 2014, two schoolchildren have drowned in pit toilets and two more died when toilet walls fell on them.

The government’s record in providing safe and conducive learning environments before the pandemic speaks for itself.

The message appears to be that black lives are expendable in the battle to rescue the economy. This despite the fact that, in the best of times, economic growth did not actually lead to an equitable distribution of wealth.

The market, in the absence of more assertive state intervention, has not ensured distributive justice — not in the labour market, not in education, not in healthcare, and certainly not with regards to land reform.

A cursory glance at Cape Town’s property market and research on gentrification will tell you that property developers and the City of Cape Town have used economic strategies to muscle residents out of Woodstock, Observatory, Salt River and Bo-Kaap, to name a few places. Gentrification is continuing the Verwoerdian dream.

This emphasis on the economy is not unique to South Africa. In the US, President Donald Trump is pushing to open the country up for business, despite its high infection rate and death toll. It appears that, when studies suggested that Hispanics and African Americans were most vulnerable to the infection, Trump seemed even less concerned about public health.

Although potentially biologically essentialist arguments about people of colour being more susceptible to Covid-19 circulate, a crucial factor here is structural: in the US, as in South Africa, people of colour are often employed in professions that place them at higher risk of infection — we have racialised class oppression to thank for this disparity.

Racialised class disparities also affect people of colour’s access to decent healthcare and quality of life. Thanks to apartheid spatial planning and the post-apartheid state’s adoption of neoliberal economics, these racialised inequities were not addressed, thereby leaving us with scenarios in which physical distancing is difficult in townships and informal settlements.

Add to these scenarios soldiers and police who punish and humiliate residents for not complying with regulations on a scale rarely seen in well-off suburbs. The pandemic reveals that black elites are willing conduits for capital.

In Frantz Fanon’s own words in The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, the ruling elites’ “mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neocolonialism. The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner.”

It is from this perspective that we see that state capture was not exceptional. As is the case with police brutality both here and in the US, we are not looking at “a few bad apples”. Like the apartheid state, post-apartheid South Africa was always already captured by racial capitalism, by colonial modernity. The entire system was not meant to serve us; we were meant to serve the system.

And so, it is back to school and back to the service industry in the middle of a pandemic. But now, as slave trader Edward Colston’s statue is given the knee and tossed into Bristol harbour and so many of us agree that Black Lives Matter, can we dismantle the systemic oppression of black people worldwide? Can we agree to place people before profits?

Adam Haupt is professor of media studies at the Centre for Film & Media Studies, University of Cape Town

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Adam Haupt
Adam Haupt is professor of media studies at the Centre for Film & Media Studies, University of Cape Town

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