The horrific murder of British tourist Brett Williams at the hands of a gang of steroid-fuelled thugs at the Kings Park stadium is just one in an avalanche of scandals that seal our reputation as a dangerously violent society.
And while we all share the hope that the men who murdered Williams will spend the rest of their lives in Westville Prison, the reality is that the police are often the perpetrators of horrific violence. A recent survey showed that 70 percent of young people don’t trust the police and in the light of recent scandals regarding police murder and brutality, there are good reasons for that.
The crisis that we face is a crisis of society and it is a crisis of the police. We need to move beyond simplistic calls for tougher policing. We need radical police reform, including demilitarisation, and we need radical social reform too. But the problem we face is that, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, political violence is rapidly becoming entrenched. The province was the epicentre of the civil war in the 1980s and, once again, it is the epicentre of political violence now. Political assassinations, police torture, and the practice of driving grassroots activists from their homes are all worse here than anywhere else. A recent report in the Sunday Tribune claimed that there have been more than 60 political murders in Wembezi, in Estcourt, in recent years. This is just incredible.
Much of the political violence in the province is linked to power struggles within the ruling party and some is linked to rivalry between the ANC, IFP and NFP. Just over two weeks ago Thembinkosi Qumbelo, formerly of the South African Shack and Rural Dweller’s Association, was assassinated in Cato Crest. With this degree of political violence it’s clear that we cannot rely on politicians and political parties to reform the police and society at large.
And while the media takes the murder of someone like Reeva Steenkamp very seriously the lives of people who are poor and black are usually not taken seriously at all. This means that the media is also often part of the problem. Some people think that the answers are in the family. But the family is where most gender-based violence happens. The family is, therefore, also often part of the problem.
There are no easy options for dealing with the crisis of violence in our society. It is not a problem that we can expect the police, the politicians, “gangster leftism”, the family or the media to solve for us. If we are going to take a decisive step away from the culture of violence we, as ordinary citizens, will have to take responsibility for this on our own.
We will have to refuse the culture of violence and the machismo that often goes with it. We’ll have to oppose it in every community and wherever it rears its head. We’ll have to think about how we raise our sons and what we accept from our politicians, police and media. We will have to isolate people that turn to violence and build cultures of peace and spaces where these cultures can flourish. This is not a task that we can leave to anyone else. It has to be a responsibility that we all take on and that we all share.
If we keep going down the road that we are currently on we’ll end up like Colombia. The rich will be barricaded into private spaces and protected by private security guards while the poor will be at the mercy of all kinds of thugs – some in the police, some in political parties and radical groups and some in criminal organisations. This is a nightmarish future. It is a future that we must step back from and that we must step back from now.
We have all kinds of urgent challenges facing us. We need to deal with mass unemployment, with the education crisis, with rampant corruption, endemic gender-based violence including rape, and the complete lack of any real vision in party politics. But we will not be able to deal with any of these problems if we don’t take the urgent challenge of rooting out the culture of violence very, very seriously.
We need to stop celebrating the narrative that falsely claims that we owe our liberation only to our armed Struggle – that it was central to our liberation. It wasn’t. It was the community struggles organised into the UDF and trade union struggles organised into Cosatu that won us our freedom. This is shown brilliantly in Stephen Ellis’s new book External Mission.
Our freedom did not flow from the barrel of a gun and neither will a better future.