By Malaika Wa Azania
People vent anger in the same way as they did under apartheid, but they harm themselves most.
Something inside me dies when I see visuals of a community burning down public infrastructure during a service delivery protest. While it awakens anger in most people, and understandably so, it awakens something different in me: immeasurable pain.
It is painful not only because it symbolises the depth of the animalisation of such a community, but because this kind of violence is, in many ways, an instrument of dehumanisation for those engaged in it.
Over the past few days, Tshwane, the administrative capital, has been on fire. Public and private property, including buses and a clinic, have been set alight by protesters opposed to the naming of ANC national executive committee member, Thoko Didiza, as the party’s mayoral candidate for Tshwane.
Because I am not conversant with the internal politics of the ANC, which are at the heart of this conflict, my analysis is not angled in this direction, but at what violence as a weapon of protest is doing to black people in particular.
The notion that violence has redeeming qualities for societies engaged in struggle has been accepted in Africa.
It was Frantz Fanon who, in The Wretched of the Earth, argued that societies waging liberation struggles use violence as an instrument of reclaiming their dispossessed humanity.
According to Fanon, for colonised people, violence invests “their characters with positive and creative qualities” and unites them.
This “mobilisation of the masses, when it comes out of the war of liberation, introduces into each man’s consciousness the ideas of a common cause, of a national destiny and a collective history”.
The political developments in African societies in the post-independence era have proved to us that Fanon’s optimism about the use of violence may have been misplaced and that its results are ambiguous.
It is true that violence was a critical instrument in the struggle for liberation.
But that history of violence has also delivered something that can best be described as calamitous.
The violence experienced since independence in many nations has been of seismic proportions. Examples have been seen in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and, without doubt, South Africa.
While colonial forces cannot be absolved of their role in the funding and perpetuation of this violence for imperialistic gain, political leaders and ordinary citizens have perpetrated substantial violence on one another. These are people who in the not-so-distant past were on the receiving end of violence.
Contemporary violence in Africa finds its roots in colonialism and liberation wars.
Tragically, few African nations have rehabilitated themselves. The result is that the politics and socio-political culture of many, if not all, African nations are embedded in a tradition and practice of violence.
Former University of Zimbabwe lecturer Dr David Kaulem posits that Zimbabwean society did little to rehabilitate itself and assumed violence was a tool that could be taken up, used and dropped at will.
This is true of South Africa too.
In the euphoria of attaining our democracy, we focused exclusively on reconciliation and constructing a “rainbow nation” that does not exist. What we did not do was to invest in the rehabilitation of a society that has been bruised by centuries of oppression, animalisation and violence.
The result is a South Africa of people suffering from a collective depression rooted in memories of violence and repression.
This violence is what many people, socialised into violent communities, know. When faced with challenges, we resort to what we know – violence.
Whenever black people disagree with their democratically elected government, the violence we resort to is identical to the way we expressed dissatisfaction with the apartheid regime.
The burning of government buildings, the looting of shops, the barricading of streets are a modus operandi inherited from engagement with the apartheid state.
The looting of white-owned shops was regarded as hurting white capital during the Struggle. The torching of state-owned buildings was a symbolic act of rebellion against a state that had made us non-citizens in our country.
The barricading of streets amounted to denying apartheid police entry to communities to subject us to the harassment, arrests and beatings that characterised native life.
Why is it that, more than two decades into a democratic dispensation, we interact with our elected government in the exact same way as we interacted with the apartheid government?
There are various reasons, but one of the two main ones is that the socio-political culture of our country is embedded in a tradition and practice of violence and we have not attempted to rehabilitate ourselves.
The second is that we have a leadership so arrogant and power drunk that it has begun to treat citizens, particularly black people, with the same contempt with which the former regime treated us. In retaliation, people have begun to treat the leadership in the way they treated the apartheid government.
The tragedy is no one is more hurt by this than ourselves. The burning of schools, clinics, libraries and other infrastructure hurts us immeasurably. It is our children who end up not going to school, for instance.
When hospitals are burned down it is us who will die because we will not receive medical assistance in time.
Children of the political elite are not directly affected by our violent actions. They attend private schools in leafy neighbourhoods where violent protests are taboo. They have access to the best private health care system available. They don’t use the libraries that are torched in townships, nor are they affected by potholes in damaged roads.
It is us who, after the damage has been done, must live in inhabitable communities. In reality, the violence we want to use as a weapon to fight the government ends up being an instrument of our own (further) dehumanisation.
The cycle of violence needs to be broken.
The economy needs to be transformed because at the heart of violence is the economic and spatial injustice that characterises South Africa. The youth who are burning down Tshwane are the product of an exclusionary system. They cannot access higher learning and cannot participate in our segmented labour market.
The untransformed nature of the economy is causing severe damage. This cannot be overemphasised.
Perpetrators of violence must be punished. It remains a travesty that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gave immunity to some of the worst perpetrators of violence.
The TRC should have made an example of them, showing violence is unacceptable. Sadly, TRC decisions cannot be undone.
What can be done is to ensure perpetrators of violence are held accountable.
Far too often, people who terrorise communities by instigating acts of violence are allowed to continue walking the streets.
South Africans need to be conscientised into the meaning of “participatory democracy”.
Many do not realise the power to decide the future is in our hands.
If a government we elected ceases to act in our interests, we need not burn down our clinics, schools or libraries to compel it to listen to us.
Rather, it must be punished it where hurts most: at the ballot box.
Let us begin to imagine a different South Africa.