In moments of crisis societies undergo a kind of unveiling. Trembling under the force of social unrest or economic instability, comforting illusions no longer satisfy the craving for respite from reality and myths begin to lose their tenacious grip on our imaginations.
One of these common beliefs is that ours is a generally humane society for most of the people who live in it. We dearly hold on to the notion that we are the people of ubuntu and that human life is granted the solemn respect it deserves.
I want to explore if this is true. Do we understand what it means to be human and accord this experience the value it deserves? It may seem like a useless question but if we take stock of recent events, one can begin to see how there is a prevalent distortion of what humans are and how they should be treated.
On 29 July, Zamekile Shangase, 32, was shot and killed by police officers during a raid to reclaim looted goods in Asiyindawo in the Madlala shack settlement near Lamontville. Reasonably angered by police invading their homes without warrants and conducting themselves with the usual aggressive arrogance, some residents of Asiyindawo gathered to demand the police leave.
Crowds of angry black people seem to numb our police service’s capacity for reason. As police retreated they fired live ammunition and Shangase died lying in a puddle of her own blood.
Shangase was not a threat to anyone’s life or safety. But morally righteous and rational justification is rarely needed when taking the life of those who dwell in the barren pits of South Africa’s hierarchy. She died because her class, and it’s inextricable connection to her race rendered her life expendable.
Her death, while tragic, will not persist in our memories as an exceptional instance of police brutality because it is a thin page in a long and ongoing history of a societal order that objectifies humans.
We reassure ourselves that those who defile the humanity of others are a minority of greedy, vicious and, in some instances, irredeemably evil individuals. You know the usual suspects — corrupt politicians, violent criminals, parasitic state bureaucrats and their gluttonous associates in the private sector.
But the reactions to last month’s crisis reveal a collective eagerness to embrace cruelty and indifference to the black and poor. From 9 July until the morning of 15 July, TV screens and social media were crowded with images of looting, destruction of commercial property and a police service that seemed hesitant or unable to contain the unrest. With the flow of normal life ruptured, fear and panic surged. In some instances these emotions found tentative solace in people rallying to provide basic necessities and lawful forms of self-protection.
Many citizens tried to soothe their fear through wishing for or enacting violence against other humans. A desperate anger moved the middle classes and rich to beat the “looters” back into submission. Others called for informal settlements to be burnt and some were set ablaze. In Phoenix some worked to serve retribution with the blows of golf sticks, bullets and the flesh-searing heat of fire.
As the crisis escalated, the calls for harsh military intervention swelled. A consensus was reached among some South Africans that order had to be restored, even if it meant that blood would dye our streets, and even if it meant bodies would pile up.
The dead number 337 and there is a familiar willingness to forget, for our minds to be lulled into detachment over human suffering. As panic and fear merged with the constant stink of smoke coating Durban’s air, some reached a disturbing clarity: for millions in South Africa life was devolving into a Hobbesian nightmare where existence is solitary, brutish and poor.
This is not a result of individual selfishness or an evil minority.
Feminists use the term “objectification” to describe how a person can be reduced to a sexual object of desire. Objectification is an essential element of dehumanisation. We can use the term to understand why South Africa remains an inhumane society.
Humans are not things. We were not crafted to serve others or to languish as another person’s property. We can make choices — granted these choices occur under a myriad of pressures and influences, but they are our own choices. Unlike a car, pen or chair, as humans we have innate needs, ambitions and desires.
A door doesn’t cry when slammed and my fridge can’t accuse me of psychological abuse. As living beings we can’t avoid physical pain nor can we suppress the visceral experience of emotions.
These fundamental aspects of our nature is how we, amid layers of chaos and tribulation of this brief existence, unearth meaning in our lives.
An abiding contradiction of South Africa, whether as a British colony, an apartheid state or as this liberal democracy, is how capitalism and the ideologies that justify its domination try to fashion human beings into objects.
American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that there are seven dimensions to objectification. These are central processes in the unfolding of South Africa’s history. The project of colonial conquest occurred in congruence with the development of capitalism, both projects of accumulation, both requiring nonwhite people, particularly African people, to become instruments for the purposes of others. Nussbaum refers to this as instrumentality.
The 18th century began this process of instrumentality. Dispossessed of land and livestock, African people were trapped into a dependency on their imperial conquerors. The discovery of mineral resources and the need for markets forced nonwhite people, especially African people, to become tools to expand the wealth of British imperialists and Dutch settlers. This process has evolved but it was not stopped by the arrival of democracy. The necessities of life are still commodified and so the majority of the black working population remain tools to enrich others.
Whether in the services industry, agriculture or mining, black people must be in gruelling and financially unrewarding servitude to survive. When the miners of Lonmin in Marikana demanded a reasonable increase in their wages, the state colluded with foreign capital to crush their dissent. Why? Because tools are disposable. Tools are cheap.
The denial of autonomy is another kind of objectification that happens in congruence with instrumentality. If humans are treated like instruments, you deny their innate need and ability for autonomy — the innate capacity to make choices and shape the course of our own lives.
This denial of autonomy and the exploitative relations it came from required compelling, albeit mystical, justification. Racism legitimised the inequalities of this country and soon the ideology of white supremacy justified the organisation of our society,
The apartheid regime constantly generated ideology which infantilised black people. Like children or beasts, black people were incapable of rationality — our reason clogged by impulse or minds clouded by emotion — and therefore incapable of making reasonable choices about our collective and individual future. Legislated segregation gave such racism an aura of legitimacy that penetrates into the present.
When the black, poor and working class protest or rally to call for a better life, their behaviour is framed as a frustrating disturbance. Protesters are often patronised as entitled. I recall the conversations about decommodifying education and healthcare in recent years, which always involve loud voices who think people are lazy for wanting life’s bare necessities to be free. Recently our newly appointed minister of finance seems to believe the myth that the poor, unemployed and working class are incapable of productively using a basic income grant.
Such discourse has its roots in a legacy of denying black people their autonomy. And so many assume that rational political thought and imagination is solely the property of the rich and middle class.
The denial of subjectivity terrorises the lives of millions. In the treatment of women, older people and children (especially if they are poor), there is disdain and disregard for the feelings and experiences of others. Women are burnt alive, hung while pregnant and their limbs severed. Sexual violence is becoming a banal feature of public discourse.
Male domination works in tandem with racial capitalism to make us numb to the feelings and experiences of women. Even though patriarchy flows through class divisions, a significant amount of those unemployed and living in poverty are women, making them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Inequality nurtures these dimensions of objectification. Inequality creates chasms and barriers of experience between humans. We share different hospitals, schools, roads and neighbourhoods, becoming alien to one another and cultivating the conditions for objectification to bloom.
To escape this Hobbesian nightmare and restore sincere respect for human life, our only choices are to organise against the prevailing capitalist order in pursuit of an economy that prioritises the nature and needs of all humans.