South Africa: The Politics of Blood

Police confront protesters in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 9, 2017. Credit: EPA/Kim Ludbrook
Police confront protesters in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 9, 2017. Credit: EPA/Kim Ludbrook

It has been just over five years since the South African state massacred thirty-four striking miners under the washed out blue of a winter afternoon. That event has come to mark a decisive rupture in the standing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and abroad.

During the mass struggles of the 1980s the ANC came, for many people, to be entwined with the very idea of the nation and its aspirations. But five years after the massacre there is a general sense that the vision of collective emancipation that was once widely thought to animate the ANC has collapsed. It has been replaced with a politics of brazen venality undergirded with organized dishonesty, slander and violence. The party, and the state it manages, are increasingly seen as more of a predatory excrescence on society than an expression of society – as a route to personal enrichment and a mechanism for exercising social control in a context of mass impoverishment and escalating dissent.

The breakdown in the moral authority of the ANC began in the zones of exclusion and domination, in the underside of society, in response to violent attempts by the state to enforce the commodification of housing, services like water and electricity, and access to land, as well as attempts to turn the ruling party into a top down instrument of social control. Over time, organized popular constituencies, including shack dwellers, and mine and metal workers, broke away from the ANC. There have been demands for land – especially urban land, a living wage and fundamental social change, imagined in terms like dignity and socialism.

Today the ANC frequently confronts open contempt in elite spaces like parliament, historically white universities, and the liberal media. Although there is general agreement that South Africa is descending into crisis there is significant contestation over the nature of the crisis. On the university campus the crisis has often come to be understood in terms of an imperative to decolonize. But the dominant view in the elite public sphere is that the crisis is centrally a problem of corruption, a problem that is, in turn, often understood as being largely consequent to the personality of Jacob Zuma, President of the ANC and the country. Within this elite sphere the removal of Dilma Rousseff from office in Brazil is, from time to time, offered as a possible model for a way forward. Corporate power with no organized popular constituency, and no democratic mandate has, by presenting the NGO form as ‘civil society’, and effectively exploiting the attraction of liberal opinion to that term, successful asserted some sort of democratic credibility in this space.

Zuma is plainly a man of execrable character – a predatory patriarch, contemptuous of the society over which he presides and primarily focused on his own enrichment. But the analysis that reduces the crisis to Zuma has real limits. For a start Zuma was brought to power by a bottom up movement within the ANC, centrally organized in the city of Durban, where Zuma has his strongest support, by the late John Mchunu.  Prior to joining the party Mchunu was a warlord in the Zulu nationalist organisation Inkatha. The movement within the party may have cohered around Zuma as its champion but its interests and politics – which amount to a form of politically authoritarian, socially conservative, and acutely patriarchal nationalism for which the state is a route to private accumulation – exceed its very successful investment in Zuma.

The reduction of the escalating social and political crisis to the problem of corruption, and the personality of Zuma, also functions to mask the failures of the ANC to confront the enduringly colonial logic of much of South African society and, of course, the power wielded by capital over society. It also masks the normalization of the use of violence as a political instrument within the ANC and the state.

After the transition from apartheid it is was widely assumed that political and other forms of violence would wither away under the legal force of the rights guaranteed in the new liberal Constitution. But the Constitution was often imagined in magical rather than political terms. In reality, political violence has steadily become a constitutive feature of the new order.

The state has increasingly governed impoverished and working class black people with the routine mobilization of violence. This violence is often legitimated by discourses around crime, and the conflation of migrants with criminals. The numbers of people killed by the police, on the streets or in police custody, are extraordinarily high. Police stations, prisons and migrant detention centers are sites of regular abuse, including torture and murder.

The occupation of abandoned buildings and unused urban land, as well as self-organized connections to services, especially electricity, whether organized as a survival strategy or an explicitly political basis, is often presented in criminal terms. People are regularly killed during evictions and disconnections, usually by private security guards in the employ of the state.

The state is often a site through which sadism, at times fatal, is organized and directed. Schools are often sites of abuse, including rape and assault. At the end of 2012, the same year as the massacre of striking miners, around 34,000 people applied for 90 positions as trainee traffic cops in the city of Pietermaritzburg, up the road from Durban. A fitness test imposed on the applicants, without prior warning, and in the blazing heat, left six dead. Another person cut his own throat. In 2015 more than a thousand psychiatric patients were moved out of specialized care in Johannesburg and into wholly inadequate NGOs, as part of a cost-cutting exercise despite vigorous opposition and protest. At least 94 people died, some of dehydration and starvation.

Police face off with student protesters in Pretoria, South Africa, on October 20, 2016. Credit: Denvor DeWee/IPS
Police face off with student protesters in Pretoria, South Africa, on October 20, 2016. Credit: Denvor DeWee/IPS

State violence takes on an explicitly political dimension when it comes to policing protest and repressing popular organization outside of the ANC. There is no adequate record of the number of people killed in street protests after apartheid but the figure is certainly higher than sixty. Every significant popular struggle or organization to emerge outside of the ANC has faced significant repression. In some cases, as with the striking miners massacred in 2012, and Abahlali baseMjondolo, a popular movement centered on a set of urban land occupations in Durban, this has included torture and murder at the hands of the state.

Political violence is also organised through assassinations. A report published in 2013 concluded that there had been up to 450, and possibly more, political assassinations since the end of apartheid, with the overwhelming majority in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. In July of this year it was reported that there had been 89 further political assassinations in the province since March 2014. These political assassinations are largely a result of conflict between political parties and conflict for positions and power within the ANC. But organizations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Communist Party have also been subject to assassination in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. More than 90 murders have been reported in a migrant workers’ hostel in Durban without a single instance of effective prosecution.

The concentration of political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal is usually ascribed to the militarization of politics in the region during the war between forces loyal to the ANC and the Zulu nationalist organization Inkatha in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But there have increasingly also been assassinations elsewhere in the country, including the murder of independent activists engaged in struggles for rural and urban land.

At the same time, there is also considerable violence organized outside of the state, including fatal attacks on migrants, women and gay people deemed to be in violation of the patriarchal order, and people deemed to be criminal. In 2008, 62 people were murdered in xenophobic pogroms, sometimes taking on an ethnic inflection, that began in Johannesburg and spread to different parts of the country. It is not unusual for xenophobic violence to be articulated to local ANC structures, to be carried out with implicit police sanction and with immunity from prosecution. The risk that this kind of popular violence could be mobilized for explicitly political purposes was demonstrated in 2009 when, in the name of both the ANC and ethnic identity, violence was mobilized against Abahlali baseMjondolo, via local party structures, in the Kennedy Road shack settlement in Durban. The attack was openly endorsed by senior ANC figures and followed by a farcical and failed attempt by the police and legal authorities to prosecute people allied to the movement for the violence.

The scale of political violence in South Africa, and the degree to which it poses a clear and present danger for the possibilities of a democratic resolution of an escalating social and political crisis, has largely been ignored in the elite public sphere. The reason for this is that the lives of impoverished and working class black people count for very little in elite spaces. Democracy is often implicitly understood as the assurance of democratic freedoms for elites. But if the normalization of political violence is not confronted directly, seriously and effectively it will continue to move out of the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and out of the zones of exclusion and subordination and into the wider society.

Richard Pithouse is an academic and journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa. A collection of his recent essays, Writing the Decline, was published last year.