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South Africans outraged by police killings in US, but silent about those at home

A protester's sign bleeds in the rain during a Black Lives Matters rally in downtown Colorado. Protests have been erupting all over the US after George Floyd died earlier this week in police custody in Minneapolis. Picture: Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP

A protester's sign bleeds in the rain during a Black Lives Matters rally in downtown Colorado. Protests have been erupting all over the US after George Floyd died earlier this week in police custody in Minneapolis. Picture: Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP

Published May 31, 2020


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 US police.

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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 the US 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 but the police kill poor black people at a terrifying rate. A few weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown at least 12 people had been killed by the police.

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.

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Often the same people who are grieved and outraged by what happens in the US 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 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.

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After the Ferguson uprising 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 US 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.

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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.

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.

* Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow at the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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