Ferguson resonates with SA
The militarisation of police is happening worldwide, but allowing our cops to act like soldiers threatens our future, writes Hamilton Wende.
Johannesburg - The tear gas and gunshots of Ferguson, Missouri, resonate eerily through this country. South Africans watching this conflict taking place thousands of kilometres away on their TV screens experience a complex set of emotions.
The killing of a young black man by a white police officer resonates through our own tortuous racial history.
In democratic America, the equation of race, power and despair remain largely trapped by the dynamics of the past.
Post-Marikana, though, our equations of blame, rage and fault are no longer as deceptively simple as those appear to be in Ferguson. The complexion of our police force has long been majority black, unlike in the US; and the victims of their violence are overwhelmingly other black, poor, people. Class and race in post-apartheid, democratic, South Africa have become twisted into a tragic knot of despair and distrust in the police.
What both countries share, is a growing militarisation of the police force. President Barack Obama has come under fire for not adequately managing the transfer of military equipment to police forces in the US. Our own police force used Nato-standard 5.56mm ammunition to quell striking miners at Marikana.
The use of heavily armoured vehicles by the police in Ferguson and routinely by our own police forces in quelling service delivery protests may well be necessary to ensure the safety of the officers, but the vehicles manoeuvring on the edges of crowds and police firing into them echoes the tactics used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as it does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The growing militarisation of police forces is a global phenomenon. In a world where terrorism increasingly strikes civilians in the streets and gathering places of their cities and towns, it is an understandable development.
However, it is not one that we should accept without examining what it means for us and for the societies we live in.
The militarisation of the police means that, inevitably, their actions become a metaphor for war on protesting civilians. This metaphor can all too easily become a psychological reality.
Certainly, many black protesters in Ferguson today believe that they are at war with a white-dominated police force. Our own reality is more complex – South Africans turn to violence far too easily and the police overreact in response. The old, clear racial divide between police and people no longer exists here, so the notion of who is “at war” with whom is blurred and confused. But, at the same time, many more people are shot to death in military-style barrages of firing by the police here than are killed or even injured by police in the US.
Many are warning that our country is at a watershed moment, where the despair of the poor may overwhelm the open, democratic society that has been built since 1994. There can be no doubt that the commonplace, militaristic shooting by the police of protesters is contributing to this rising sense of outrage and nihilism.
We need to question this growing trend in our policing style. Police are not soldiers. They certainly should be given proper protection and the equipment to do their jobs, but to simply equip them and train them to behave like soldiers is deeply problematic.
Since 9/11, America has become a more militarised society; we should not follow suit. Our history is too filled with war and massacres as it is: Isandlwana, War of the Axe, the campaigns against Sekhukhune, the Anglo-Boer War, Sharpeville, Soweto 1976, the bloodletting in the 1990s in KwaZulu-Natal and Khumalo Street – even a cursory list shows how deeply factional conflict is layered into our identity and collective memory as South Africans.
In healthy societies police and soldiers do different things. It is only in unhealthy societies where their roles become merged. Think of the ragtag banana republics like El Salvador in the 1980s, or even Argentina and Chile. Many African countries have seen this happening too.
The simple truth is that soldiers exist to kill other people in defence of the homeland. That this is necessary is a terrible human reality, but as Plato said: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Soldiers must be trained and equipped to be effective killers.
Ideally, police should never kill anyone – they should be trained and equipped so that they never have to. The better equipped the police are with non-lethal weapons and defensive gear, the less likely they are to kill or injure civilians. So the problem lies not in the heavy, almost sci-fi like armour that modern police wear, but in the attitude of those who lead them.
What was in the mind of Lonmin executives when they sent the infamous e-mail to Cyril Ramaphosa requesting that he use his “influence to bring this over to the necessary officials who have the necessary resources at their disposal”?
What was in the mind of Cyril Ramaphosa when he called former police minister Nathi Mthethwa? What did Nathi Mthethwa think he was being asked to do? What did he say to his senior officers? What did they order their juniors to do?
These are the questions that will define the future of our society. Answers to them continue to evade us. We simply don’t know the truth, but one thing is clear: Our police are in a crisis.
Allowing them, or more ominously perhaps, expecting them, to continue to act like soldiers, threatens that future.
* Hamilton Wende is a freelance writer and television producer.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.