By Imraan Buccus
When the coronavirus first began to spread across the world every second pundit wrote a piece predicting that the world would not be the same again. Many looked to histories of the plague to argue that pandemics seldom leave societies untouched politically.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is not yet over, and we don’t yet have any concrete sense of how it will leave our societies when it finally subsides. The economic crash that we are heading for in South Africa will certainly change our politics in fundamental ways. But right now we can’t say what those are. All we can offer is speculation.
But the first major global political shift underway before our eyes is the rebellion sweeping the United States in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd. African Americans, and progressive whites, have been opposing racialist police violence since the end of the Civil War. And there have been period flareups in terms of urban rebellions over the years, most famously, perhaps, the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 following the police beating of Rodney King.
In 2014 the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown turning the fledging Black Lives Matter movement into a powerful national and international force. Like all social media driven forms of politics it didn’t endure as an organised force, and its leadership were soon captured by NGO politics. But it certainly made a huge impact in 2014 and 2015.
But the rebellion that has followed the police murder of George Floyd is something new. It is national, it has sustained itself despite severe police repression and is a black led multi-racial movement. There has been a direct challenge to the authority of the state. Police stations have been burnt and New York City has been placed under curfew for the first time since World War 2.
Donald Trump has resorted to recycling the racist language of the segregationists of the 1960s and has appeared as a very weak leader. Some of his own supporters and officials have jumped ship.
More than a few commentators have made comparisons with the Arab Spring in 2011 and wondered if there is now a real possibility of a fundamental shake up of the political order in the United States. It is too early to draw any definitive conclusion but if protests can be sustained, can cohere around a central demand and hold space in the central parts of the main cities it could be very difficult for Trump to swiftly get things back to ‘business as usual’.
A number of commentators have noted that in the US the election of black mayors, the appointment of black police chiefs, and even the election of a black president, did not stop racist police violence. It is increasingly being argued that this points to the limits of electoral politics and the need for forms of organisation and contestation outside of the electoral arena.
An inspiring progressive candidate for the presidency can, as happened with Barack Obama, and may have happened with Bernie Sanders, redirect grassroots energies back into electoral politics as election day approaches. But in November Americans will have to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and Biden has a very poor record on racial issues, and all the charisma of a wet dish cloth. Progressive will probably vote for Biden, but they won’t do so with any enthusiasm and so the politics of popular outrage could remain on the streets for a long time.
With millions of jobs being lost across the US due to the coronavirus pandemic; it is not impossible that a movement that began in multi-racial rage at anti-black racism could turn into a broader demand for a more just and inclusive social order.
All of this carries important lessons for South Africa. As we know our police are, in fact, more violent than the American police and kill three times more people each year, per capita, than the police in the US. The fact that the police here killed 11 people in the first part of the lockdown, along with one more person killed by the army, has jolted many people into awareness that we too confront a serious policing issuing.
And, just like in the US, having black politicians and officials in authority has not stopped the scourge of police violence, a scourge that overwhelmingly affects poor black people.
In 2015 the Black Lives Matter movement in the US became an important influence on the student movement on campuses across South Africa. That movement began with some inspiring progressive aspirations. On some campuses it was soon captured by the ANC and the EFF, and pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta forces like Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First. But its initial demands around curriculum reform, anti-racism and access were certainly just.
Is it possible that, again, a political explosion in the US, and this time an explosion far bigger than that witnessed in 2014, could shape politics here? That seems likely. Quite how things will play out is anyone’s guess at the moment. But one thing that we know for sure is that we have a very serious problem with a large degree of impunity for regular police violence, including the frequent killing of poor black people by the police.
If we say that black lives matter, as all should, then certainly it is not a large leap to say that just as the life of George Floyd should matter so to the life of Collins Khosa, and all the other people killed by the police during the lockdown should matter. There are already rumblings in this direction on social media.
In South Africa politics is bifurcated by class with middle class people often operating in a bubble of social media, NGOs, opinion pieces and online petitions that are a world apart from the reality of poor people’s politics in community organisation and social movements. Most middle-class people take very little interest in poor people’s politics.
But if the issue of police violence is taken up here it would have to, by definition, link the middle-class world of social media chatter with poor people’s politics for the simple reasons that the victims of police brutality are almost always poor and black. Could this intersection, taking place in a time of growing economic crisis, be the trigger for what Moeletsi Mbeki famously called South Africa’s ‘Tunisia Day’, our own Arab Spring? It is too early to tell, but it is also not impossible