We should censure leaders and politicians who condone or provoke violent actions against opponents, says Max du Preez.
Cape Town - South Africa’s terrible past of violent oppression and violent resistance to oppression, as well as the dangerous inequality in society, have contributed to making us one of the most violent societies in the world.
We cannot change the past, but we can and should change the future. South Africans’ continued inclination to resort to violence at the slightest provocation could become a real threat to our stability, still our most precious commodity, in this time of uncertainty and division.
The citizens of South Africa should censure leaders and politicians who condone or provoke violent actions against opponents. The government should give strict instructions that the police act firmly and immediately against everyone guilty of violence or threats of violence, otherwise it will remain part of our political culture.
My blood ran cold when I heard on the radio last week the head of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, Irvin Jim, insulting non-striking petrol attendants in a fiery tone. His tirade smacked of fascist authoritarianism and reckless provocation, by now Jim’s trademarks. I wasn’t surprised to learn on Sunday that the first non-striking petrol attendant had been killed after a week of violent intimidation and many injuries.
The tolerance and often veiled encouragement of violence during strike action by the leadership of Cosatu have almost become a given, almost accepted as normal. Its new adversary, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), is equally ready to use violence as a tool to get its way.
The shocking reality is that more than 180 people were killed and well over 300 injured during violent strike action in the past 13 years, and that excludes the deaths at Marikana. Last year alone at least 60 people, mostly non-striking workers, died during strikes at the hands of fellow workers.
This means more than 500 families were traumatised, and many were left without a breadwinner.
During the 2006 strike by security guards, dozens of non-strikers were killed, some after being thrown from moving trains, to bring that year’s death toll to 69.
The most remarkable feature of that strike was the complete absence of police action against the killers and attackers. As far as I could establish, not one of those murders led to a court case.
The reaction of trade union leaders, including suspended Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi, is disturbing. When confronted with the violence, they always vaguely condemn it but then add that the violence was perpetrated by rogue elements or non-union members.
Workers and shop stewards prone to violent action experience this as condonation through soft condemnation.
We saw this opportunistic attitude demonstrated clearly last year when the DA marched in Joburg to protest against Cosatu’s blocking of the government’s decision to institute a youth employment subsidy. Jim warned the DA to cancel the march “or else”. Other Cosatu leaders talked in ominous terms about the “running dogs of white capitalism wanting to take over Cosatu House”, asking their members to “defend” the federation’s headquarters.
The march, a perfectly legal and legitimate political action in a democracy, did end in violence. Neither Cosatu nor the ANC condemned it, rather calling the march provocative and opportunistic.
I would support an argument that the employers should also take some responsibility for the heated emotions during industrial bargaining. But the first responsibility to stamp out violent behaviour by strikers lies with the trade union leaders and the SAPS.
A good start would be to have a number of high-profile prosecutions of killers, attackers and intimidators. But for that there needs to be the political will on the side of the ANC government, and that’s not guaranteed.
A second step would be for trade union leaders who foment violence, even subtly so, to be disciplined by Cosatu or Amcu, and where they are also prominent leaders of the ruling party, by the ANC itself.
A third step would be for the SAPS to urgently launch a programme to train policemen how to deal with riotous assemblies, protest actions and intimidation during industrial action. As we witnessed at Marikana last year, our police don’t have those skills, and that can increase the potential for violence.
Another step to undermine the violent tendencies in our society would be to tighten the legislation dealing with public statements that could be seen as legitimising or provoking violence and violent action.
I have heard Julius Malema and some of his comrades in the Economic Freedom Fighters make statements about blood-letting and violent actions that I thought were reckless. Even the military structure of the EFF leadership offends me.
Perhaps a part of the problem is that too many of our politicians still behave as if they’re part of a liberation army, instead of participants in an open democracy.
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.