South Africa: Celebrating a Murderous State

analysis

The public discussion around the pageantry at the annual opening of Parliament often treats the event more like the Oscars than a serious attempt to take some measure of where we are.

It is frequently received as if the dignity of the nation is invested in the quality of the spectacle produced by this performance of elite power. With politicians implicitly measured against celebrities disappointments are inevitable.

This year the discussion about how people looked and dressed, a discussion that is always gendered, took a particularly cruel turn. But Jacob Zuma came out of the usual analysis of how the President performed as a speaker in Parliament better than in previous years.

The red carpet, used to mark the arrival of celebrities, politicians and royalty at important events, first appears in the written record in the play Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus in Ancient Greece, more than four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Agamemnon, a King, returns from war and his wife commands her maidens to 'strew the ground before his feet with tapestries' to create 'a crimson path' for the King.

The King had sacrificed his daughter to the Gods so that their favour would enable his ships to sail to the enemy. The crimson path, usually thought to symbolise blood, turns out to mark the King's own guilt, and his own imminent doom, rather than the blood of his enemies. After he walks the crimson path his wife kills him, off-stage, with three blows from an axe, while he sits in the bath.

Last week, off-stage, and far from glamour and petty dramas enacted on the red carpet running into Parliament, another kind of crimson path was being laid out. Both popular protest and state violence have reached levels not seen since the 1980s.

There is a demand, issued from below and from the margins long before the rich men in the red berets decided to embrace it, that insists that the time has come to redeem the people sacrificed so that the ANC could return from their exile, from their failed war, with a victory of sorts.

In January at least nine people were killed by the police on protests. A tenth person killed on a protest was said to have died at the hands of ANC supporters.

There was a six year lull in police killings at protests after apartheid, and a ten year lull in mass popular protest. But it could be argued that while the sequence of popular urban protest that began in Soweto in 1976 has certainly mutated it has not yet been concluded. For some of us the struggle continues.

We all know that the police, and other armed forces in the hands of the state, routinely harass, torture and murder certain kinds of people with impunity.

Sex workers, migrants, gay people and poor people are often treated with contempt and subject to violence and extortion by the police. Last year we watched the police drag Mido Macia behind a police van before they beat him to death in the holding cells.

For a long time political violence at the hands of the police was largely perpetrated outside of the elite public sphere on the bodies of people whose equal humanity remains, at best, in question by much of the media, civil society and the academy. But in 2011 we watched the police murder Andries Tatane on the television news. The next year we watched the police murder thirty four striking miners.

These events have moved us to the point where someone murdered by the police on a protest is now likely to be named in press reports, and perhaps even have an article or two dedicated to their life, the protest on which they were murdered and the circumstances of the murder.

Local responses to police violence are becoming more vigorous and have, on occasion, included counter-attacks on the police. But our society, as a whole, continues as if the now routine recourse to murder by the state to contain popular dissent is part of the off-stage background hum to social life rather than a crisis at the heart of the social order.

In the elite public sphere we are far more likely to put the Secrecy Bill, E-Tolls, or in some cases rhinos, at the centre of our collective concerns than the accumulation of bodies - bodies of people who were, in life, poor and black - at the hands of the state.

The logic that enables this to continue is a version of the same logic that was central to colonialism and to apartheid. It is the logic of a graduated humanity.

The fact that spaces of power have been opened, albeit it imperfectly, to all those that can afford access has not changed the fact that some people's lives, lived in some places, count for much, much less than the lives of other people, lived in other places.

There is a tacit assumption that millions of people should be consigned to lives that are both separate and unequal. There is also a widespread assumption, often more explicit than tacit, that a refusal to accept this is perverse and criminal and should be crushed.

A recent editorial in The Times throws around words like 'hooligans', 'thugs' and 'anarchy', moves from the entirely fantastical assumption that rights protected in principle via the Constitution actually exist for all of us in practice and poses the destruction of property by protestors as a threat to the 'rule of law', 'democracy' and 'freedom' without once making reference to the fact that the state is using murder as a form of social control.

If the ANC took the lives of people who are poor and black seriously, and if they took democracy seriously, they would not have had the audacity to have run the opening of Parliament as a celebration at a time of unprecedented levels of popular protest and state repression.

Zuma may not have fluffed his lines in Parliament but they were not honest lines. He informed us that "The democratic government supports the right of citizens to express themselves" when it so plainly does not.

If we, as a society, took the lives of people who are poor and black seriously, we would not have tolerated the presentation of the politician as celebrity - and the more or less absolute separation between the political, as a space of elite power and glamorous spectacle, and the political as a space of escalating desperation and brutality.

In recent years the death of young men at the hands of the police has provoked mass outrage in countries like France, Greece and England. Our quiescence is also our complicity.

In A Sad State of Freedom the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet lamented that 'The moment you're born / they plant around you / mills that grind lies'. Make no mistake. Parliament is one of the mills where the lies required to sustain what Hikmet called the 'kind of freedom' that is 'a sad affair under the stars' are ground.

The blind flurry around the crimson path leading into parliament is, certainly, a sad affair under the stars. And if the ancient symbol of the crimson path still speaks to us about the hubris of power, about the price that must be paid for injustice, we'd be unwise to assume that it leads into the sort of easy resolution favoured in the happy endings scripted by Hollywood rather than the hard won lessons of tragedy favoured by Aeschylus.

Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

Read more articles by Richard Pithouse.

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