Why are you shooting me? Protest, police violence and our violence.

‘Why are you shooting me? Ntumba asked. And then the cop shot him again and again and jumped on him. The shooting of an innocent bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba during the Wits protests last week was described by Thando Sibanda. 

Mapping police violence

Vicky Osterweil writes that in 21st Century America it’s hard to think of any less popular political action than (protest) or its ‘violent’ expression in rioting and looting. We could say the same in South Africa for protest action which is in many senses mischaracterised as violent and unsubstantiated and often partaken in by those with nothing better to do and who ‘want everything for nothing’ according to the trope of the previously advantaged and already privileged. The #savesouthafrica brigade and comparable movements aside, of course, in that when they protest, it is largely celebrated and not crushed by police force.

She goes on to say that forms of acceptable political action include voting and electioneering (as the baseline of political action), petitioning and lobbying of elected representatives is not far behind, labour action despite decades of (federal action) still has strong support in many quarters (though whilst the former may mirror South Africa, the latter is receiving waning support and even legislative attempts to curtail labour action), community organizing, once the bedrock of civil society action, do still support demonstrations when perceived as non-violent and when their people are doing it. 

Ironically, she goes on, more extreme forms of political action have widespread support: both liberals and conservatives internationally believe in war considering it a necessary evil or fundamental good. Liberals oppose the death penalty but like conservatives believe in the efficacy of murder when it comes to war. Torture is celebrated 1000 times a day in police procedural and action movies and most people regard imprisonment-years of unrelenting psychic torture-as a necessary fact of social life. Economic coercian on the international stage through sanctions, trade agreements and development loans is a matter of course. At home, the threat of unemployment, homelessness, starvation and destitution along with debt, taxes, fines and fees of all kinds are so naturalised as to rarely even be recognised as a form of political domination at all.

Protest by the working class, poor and excluded students finds little support in dominant South African Society. The ‘redemptive’ violence of police is often justified, celebrated and even encouraged in certain quarters, specifically by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

When I watched the footage of the police advancing on the protesting Wits students last week, I was shocked by the blatant aggression and lack of temperance. And they knew they were being filmed.

In order to properly understand and map the violence of modern-day policing, it is important to understand the roots of property. South Africa, like many other formerly colonised lands is built on centuries of violent economic exploitation and exclusion. 

In her chapter on the racial roots of property in America, Osterweil says that the USA is built on African slavery and indigenous genocide. She says that this simple fact is the premise from which any honest study of American history must begin. Property, state, government and economy in America rise from these pillars of racialised dispossession and violence, slavery and genocide and any change made that does not upend this history, that does not tear these pillars to the ground through a process of decolonization and reparations does not deserve the name justice.  We could easily transpose this paragraph virtually as is using ‘South Africa’ in place of America.

A vision for a different life

Although American history, she says, (and I suggest our own) is largely the continuation of this violence, it is also full of moments and movements that envisage a life lived otherwise. The #feesmustfall, #outsourcingmustfall and ancillary and other manifestations of these movements like #austeritymustfall embody these moments and movements. These are moments and movements are embodiments of resistance, liberation and transformation envisioning a world beyond not only the crushing violence of the state in its most obvious embodiment-police force and prisons-but also beyond the more insidious forms of violence such as the economic coercian expressed in debt, taxes, fines and fees of all kinds and manifested in actual and threatened unemployment, homelessness, starvation and destitution.

It is necessary to understand the roots of modern-day policing and its unholy alliance with white supremacy the world over. The concept of property itself evolved out of euro-american chattel slavery and settler colonialism. Just as indigenous slaves built the great wealth of the modern Western world, so too, in Southern Africa, was (and still largely is) the great wealth and infrastructure of these parts mined and built on the back of African slavery and then centuries of violent systematic exclusion and exploitation that Terblanche articulates and which eventually found its expression in a codified or legislated system which came to be known as apartheid for around 80 years prior to political freedom in 1994. I qualify freedom as political freedom as freedom is yet to find its full expression in a just society here. This will require the commitment of all South Africans in mind, body and soul to arrive at the realisation that this deeply unequal society of ours is neither sustainable for us nor is it good for us in any sense if we are committed to becoming whole healed individuals that make up a whole healed society.

I will no-doubt be criticised in the sense that those who look like me will say but the death of Ntumbi was black on black violence. He was killed by the black state. 

However, in the same way that Rhamaposa did the bidding for and/or  provided a buffer to the anglo-americans of this world in the Marikana killings, our state and its various machinations still prop up the status quo of a small minority that have more than they need at the expense of the vast majority who, in many respects, hardly have what they need. While legal apartheid was dismantled around 1994, de facto apartheid has found its expression in far more insidious ways including the burgeoning lagers of elite security estates and the associated fortification of the private security industry with its various manifestations of limitation of freedom of movement and profiling of certain classes of individuals within those estates and even in suburbs where often access and freedom of movement is (unconstitutionally) restricted on public roads. It also finds expression in couching corruption as the African way or the way of the African state when, in truth, corruption is the international language of business often finding expression in old tropes like ‘its not what you know, its who you know’. Any system that pits humans against each other in competition, like capitalism does, will always battle the problem of corruption. In this system I get ahead and thrive by crushing you or by ensuring that you I win and you lose. It touches how we do everything from schooling to conflict resolution.

We don’t want to heal

In her work, Osterweil traces the origins of modern day policing to white vigilanti-ism on slave plantations through to a violent response to worker movement uprisings in the early 1900s and unpacks its inter-connectedness with the protection of private property over and above care for human life. The fault line is that private property is always to be protected from the disinherited, the excluded, the desperate and those living with their backs against the wall. In short: those who do not have what they need and, moreover, do not have access to what they need.

In our own country, we have a shameful past of police brutality as the hard artillery used to maintain the aforementioned system of violent exclusion and exploitation-a past almost too painful and too complex to honestly and articulately elucidate. But sadly, not a distant past. This is our very recent past. And it has reached into and exists in our present. If we are honest, it exists to protect the status quo that existed prior to 1994 and has reached into and has its tentacles embedded firmly into the present.

On balance, protest is one of the least violent methods of political actions if one really gets to grips with economic exclusion and exploitation, and all that it involves, which is still a firm reality of South African Society. Am I wrong? Look around you and then answer that question. But be honest and let’s reflect on how each of us (particularly the descendants of former colonisers) partake in propping up the status quo. 

Many around me distribute conspiracy theories in the name of not letting the media tell us what to think about Covid and the pandemic and all manner of how the ‘global elites’ are coming for us and our freedoms. The truth may be hidden in plain sight: capitalist society is a giant triangle pyramid scheme and we are watching its trajectory move towards the top tip of the triangle where a terrifyingly small few have way more than what they need and the majority does not have what they need. Yet the conspiracy theorists explain this in terms of baby-blood drinking paedophiles who are being waged war against in secret by the Christian right who incidentally insist on protecting and conserving the very system that will undoubtedly, and, if uninterrupted, end humanity.

Those same individuals who distribute anti-main stream media conspiracy theories often accept, in whole, what the media says about protest and protestors.

So Ntumba’s last words, ‘Why are you shooting me?’ should ring in our ears as a warning and a call to solidarity with the excluded, dispossessed and marginalised. The media languaged his death as the death of a ‘civilian’ thus inadvertently couching the students as violent combatants as the #endausterity movement has articulated. Many of us continue to fall for this trope, welcoming and celebrating the force of the police that crushes protest and enforces law and order quite oblivious to the real possibility in that continuing our firmly gripped belief that ‘they’ are ‘entitled’, ‘destructive’ and ‘want everything’ for nothing when actually the inclusion of every single citizen, the insistence that our society become just (that is, each person has what they need) is confoundingly and intricately connected to all our well-being.

Wanting to heal looks different. Moments and movements like #feesmustfall, #outsourcingmust fall and #auteritymustfall connecting to broader movements like #blacklivesmatter and #defundthepolice are showing us the way. We need institutions of healers. Imagine if teachers saw themselves as healers, doctors saw themselves as healers, lawyers saw themselves as healers. Imagine if police saw themselves as healers. 

Imagine if politicians saw themselves as healers.

Imagine if each of us saw ourselves as healers.

Imagine if we really wanted to heal.

Sheena Jonker

Email sheena@adr-networksa.co.za




[ii] Vicky Osterweil, In Defence of Looting.

[iii] Sampie Terrblanche, A history of inequality in South Africa

[iv] Osterweil, supra at Ch 4

[v] Terblanche, supra and Western Empires: Christianity and the inequalities between the best and the rest.