We speak out against the murder of George Floyd, but do we devalue black lives in SA?

By Imraan Buccus

It is inspiring that South Africans have expressed outrage at the murder of Geroge Floyd in the US, yet we are largely silent on the regular police murders at home.

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sent a wave of grief and anger around the world. The US was built on African slavery and indigenous genocide, and remains a fundamentally racist country.

As the great African-American academic Cornell West has pointed out, the system of electoral politics in the US has been unable to achieve the sort of reforms that could finally put an end to even the crude racism of the police. As West points out; the election of a black president did not end the pervasive racism of the American police. 

But the protests that have erupted across the country have reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, and given real hope that popular rebellion will achieve what electoral politics has failed to do. When the Black Lives Matter became a powerful force after the uprising in Ferguson in August 2014, people who claimed leadership on the basis of a social media presence were soon co-opted by NGOs and foundations, and the movement lost the source of its real power – popular rebellion. Hopefully, lessons have been learnt and this time, the movement will insist that its real power comes from, and should remain, on the streets.

It is wonderful to see people around the world, including here in South Africa, expressing support for the struggle against systemic racism in the US. But America is not the only country in which black people are regularly subject to police harassment, violence and murder. 

The situation is at least as bad in Brazil and Palestine. In South Africa, we may have a black government, yet a few weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown, at least 12 people had been killed by the police during lockdown operations.  A number of people have asked why South Africans are generally unconcerned about the regularity and impunity with which the police here murder unarmed, poor black people. Often the same people who are grieved and outraged by what happens in America are entirely silent when poor black people are killed by the police here at home. 

Surely the affirmation that black lives matter should include the lives of black people in South Africa? Surely, we should know, after the Barack Obama presidency, that having black people in political power does not necessarily reform racist systems? During Obama’s term in office, police violence against black people in the US, the mass incarceration of black and Latino people, and drone strikes around the world continued unabated.

If Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Benjamin Netanyahu ever have the audacity to visit South Africa, we should take to the streets in our tens of thousands to shut their visit down. But we should also be expressing the same outrage at Bheki Cele and every other politician who supports or fails to condemn the pervasive police violence against poor black people in South Africa. 

After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, Angela Davis, the brilliant African-American activist and academic, pointed out that there were clear links between the oppression of black people in the US and Palestinians. She noted that the Israeli state, a deeply racist institution, was training and equipping American police officers. She also noted that during the Ferguson uprising; activists in Palestine were sharing advice on social media about how to deal with teargas and other forms of police violence.

Davis advanced an internationalist position in which we should be in solidarity with the oppressed everywhere, from Gaza to Ferguson. This is an impressively principled form of politics that carries a real moral authority. But while huge numbers of South Africans respond with righteous outrage when the police kill another innocent person in the US, and there is a small but vibrant South African movement in support of Palestine, South Africans generally do not take racialised forms of state violence at home seriously.

The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Have we perhaps internalised a colonial devaluation of the lives of our own people? Or is this a question of a residual faith in the ANC despite its long record of violence, including lethal violence, against poor black people? Is it because our public sphere is dominated by the middle classes, but it is largely poor people who are murdered by the police, usually with impunity?

Whatever the reason for the general lack of outrage at lethal forms of state violence in South Africa, we cannot continue to claim any sort of moral high ground when police murders of our own people pass without comment. It simply makes no sense for us to be outraged by police murders in the US, but silent on the regular police murders at home.

With far-right wing presidents in office in the USA, India, Brazil, Australia, Hungary and elsewhere, and the global economy set to collapse into a depression as bad or worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s, these are depressing times. In these difficult times, the rebellion sweeping the US is a real beacon of hope. 

It is inspiring to see so many people in South Africa following and supporting that rebellion. But if we want to be true to its spirit, we should be opposed to all forms of racist and racialised police violence – from the US, to Brazil, to Palestine and here at home in South Africa. 

If Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Benjamin Netanyahu ever have the audacity to visit South Africa, we should take to the streets in our tens of thousands to shut their visit down. But we should also be expressing the same outrage at Bheki Cele and every other politician who supports or fails to condemn the pervasive police violence against poor black people in South Africa. 

If we could bring all the anger that we feel about the situation in the US home, we would have a real chance of being able to start to reform policing at home. And reform is urgently needed. It is, literally, a matter of life and death. DM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.