What is the value of black life in South Africa? The question may seem unnecessary to many, ridiculous to others. Isn’t it obvious that all human life, irrespective of gender, nationality, race or whatever category, is of immeasurable and inherent value. But our history and our present world appears abundant with people, structures and systems that treat human life with callous indifference.
With the death in the United States of George Floyd at the hands of a police official, black Americans and the world at large were horrifically reminded of black people’s status as disposable and insignificant in the eyes of the US criminal justice system, and in the eyes of American society at large. As #BlackLivesMatter protests roared across the US, South Africans echoed the righteous indignation of their brothers and sisters in the diaspora. We tweeted, posted, blogged and vlogged in solidarity with them.
The ANC released a statement pointing out that “American society places a perilously low value on black lives”, condemning the violent discrimination that black Americans endure. Reading this statement and observing the enthusiasm for Black Lives Matter in South Africa, I could not help but notice a contradiction, one might even call it hypocrisy: a rhetoric and performative activism that advocated for the liberation of black lives on another continent and a political order that degrades black lives at home, creating a society whose moral consciousness has become acclimated to the devaluing of black people.
The ANC, which has shamed the American police for its brutality, is the same ruling party overseeing a police “service” in which members are accused of rape, sexual assault, torture and killing black citizens.
The same South Africans who fanned the fires of xenophobia in 2019, fostering a social climate that encouraged the persecution of African migrants, are some of the same people now preaching about the terrors black Americans endure at the hands of police.
There exists a network hierarchies which require that some black lives retain more value than others.
I don’t think this disregard for black life is indiscriminate or coincidental: there exists a hierarchy where some black lives have more value than others. We are surrounded by, our minds immersed in and lives subjected to structures of power that dictate what kind of black lives we should care about.
This conclusion is based not solely on what people say but the actions we see them undertake. Paying attention to this, we can begin to recognise which black people don’t matter. The lives of African foreigners, black people who many see as hostile strangers, are of minimal worth to black South Africans. Xenophobic violence is a routine event in this country. Soon after #BlackLivesMatter trended, South African Twitter saw the hashtags #NigeriansMustGo and #NigeriaMustFall trending.
The scarcity of jobs, the tyranny of crime and the debilitation of socioeconomic stability sparks fear and anxiety. Not having a thorough understanding of the systemic causes of unemployment or crime, citizens jump to unfairly blame African migrants, whose presence is seen as parasitic, draining on scarce resources and disturbing our tenuous social stability. Every few years this hostility spews over into destructive violence against black people from elsewhere in Africa.
If we sincerely cared for migrants and refugees, their routine persecution would not be tolerated.
These migrants living on the desolate margins of society are not the only black people whose lives are drained of worth. The debasement of black life also functions through what social theorists call objectification; humans no longer remain entirely human. What you need or want, what you will or refuse, your principles and values, your dreams and ambitions — these pillars of your personhood become secondary to another question: How useful are you to power?
An iron-hearted efficiency has defined capitalism in South Africa since 1994, engineering a society dedicated to the relentless pursuit of profit. The government and citizens are forever obsessed with “economic growth” (but rarely do we ask how
significant economic growth affects positive human development).
Our lives subjected to this fervent pursuit, capitalism demands that we evaluate human life in terms of its usefulness in the production of profit. Being aware of this, one is able to see why there is a nonsensical but prevalent mentality that views the wealthy, particularly the “self-made” rich and ultra-wealthy, as morally virtuous.
What happens to those who aren’t wealthy? What happens to those who are perilously poor and who must painfully toil for survival? Like the 63% of the black population who live in poverty, they are objectified — turned into instruments whose value is finite. We know what can happen when the black poor and working classes obstruct the pursuit of profit: violence on a grand scale.
The country witnessed this violence in 2012 as the miners of Lonmin were striking for higher wages. Ignored by Lonmin management, betrayed by unions, their strike stunted production. Being of little use to Lonmin as subversive and uncooperative workers, on August 16 2012, 34 striking miners were killed by the South African Police Service. The Marikana massacre is a damning testament that the lives of working-class and poor black people don’t matter. National outrage was quick to calm and how easily has the country, its politicians and civilians forgotten about this tragedy.
Women in South Africa perpetually endure a similar kind of objectification. Like the worker under capitalism, women are reduced to objects, the difference being their instrumental purpose is towards gratifying the sexual desires, social demands and cultural beliefs of men.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence are so common because a patriarchal society (a society in which the centres of power are largely dominated by men) does not respect or has little concern for what women need and want. The sexual violence women experience can often quickly become a lethal threat to their lives. The proof that the lives of women don’t matter is in the silence and moral dormancy of men when faced with the horror of this violence.
Alongside the objectification of capitalism and male domination stands another metric of evaluating black life: how well does a black person’s identity comply with, and their individuality submit to the popular standards of gender and sexuality? A stinging, sad truth about the black community is how we have retained regressive features of conservatism.
This conservatism, mostly founded on colonial Christianity and authoritarian aspects of Nguni culture, asserts that there are certain ways — “good and proper” ways — of being human.
Those who transgress our notions of manhood or femininity, who violate with bold shamelessness, our narrow, suffocating expectations of gender, are usually not perceived to be worth respectful recognition and, therefore, do not matter. Black lesbians are familiar with the fear of corrective rape.
Sex workers across the country share this fear of sexual violence, from their customers and the police.
As for the African stranger, the objectified worker or woman, little energy is gathered and given towards safeguarding the rights and freedoms of those black lives we revile as deviant or abnormal.
What I find to be most damning and bewildering is how the primary orchestrators of the structural debasement of black lives are other black people. Often, but not always, these black citizens, armoured with different forms of power or advantage, are guilty of the ill treatment of those they consider to be below them in the hierarchy.
Patriarchy, corrosive nationalism, neoliberal capitalism, heteronormativity — these hierarchies mystify through division. Black South Africans are deluded into believing that joblessness will end once all African migrants have been banished.
Black men are deceived by the logic of their own domination, unable to see past the curtain of gender and to care for the suffering of women.
I believe a possible cure is in the cultivation of radical solidarity. This kind of solidarity would be based on a profound compassion. It requires that we master those precious features of our humanity, using our intellects and imagination to understand the lives of those we deem different, inferior and unworthy.
Compassion begins where empathy ends. It isn’t enough to feel the pain of others. To comprehend the suffering of others, to unearth its systemic roots, to see how it may be connected with our own tribulations, provides our moral conscience with the passion to unify with others in the struggle to obliterate obsolete structures of power.
Andile Zulu is a political essayist. He can be followed on Twitter at: @Zulu_AL