OPINION: The anatomy of an incident

The anatomy of an incident

"Oh my God! I'm losing my breath!"

"Fuck your breath"

Just a few weeks ago, the story of Eric Harris, a black man shot by a white reserve deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who claims he mistook his gun for his tazer, was all too reminiscent of Eric Garner's narrative. Garner's dying words were 'I can't breathe', repeatedly uttered while a police officer's arm was around his neck. The video footage in which you can hear Harris say 'Oh my god. I'm losing my breath', and an officer, with his knee on the back of Harris's head, respond 'fuck your breath', connects the two men beyond sharing a race and name. The narrative is startling in its sickening familiarity.

This week the xenophobic murder of Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra, captured in a cover story, reminded us of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave, who was set alight in May 2008 by South Africans. The image of his burning body was published on our front pages. Men who become metonyms, standing for more than themselves. Images of incidents. Faces of a moment in time that will continue to haunt and unsettle us. Reminders that freedom, justice, equality and humanity are calibrated differently in our reality.

We circle on the same things. Year after year, month after month and day after day, we find ourselves discussing different manifestations of the same incidents. We dissect their causes and effects in news cycles, and ask ourselves the recurring questions that continue to emerge out of our complex personal, social, economic and political landscape. With a haunting, pressing and alarming familiarity, these things that refuse to go away remind us that freedom and humanity have many different textures and meanings, and demand to be taken seriously.

This cyclical, recurrent nature of pressing issues is not unique to South African society. It resonates and echoes beyond state borders.

There is a pervasive sense of exhausting, toxic deja vu as we return to a familiar set of questions, entangled with new ones, that emerge out of the 'incidents' that appear on our news agenda. This week, xenophobic violence, how black bodies and black death are treated in the media, and South African and greater African identity are the sites of our complex and complicated questions.

The obscene underside of nationalism continues to rear its head, showing how patriotic ideals are not simply positive, but simultaneously create boundaries between insider and outsider, us and them, South African and foreign national. In the face of yet another return of the same issue, time seems to condense and blur as we ask ourselves, 'are we here, again?'

The new wave of xenophobic violence takes us back to the May 2008 xenophobic pogroms, and to the many moments in time when it has again appeared on our radar. But when it is not the subject of our news cycles and the focus of our cover stories, xenophobia, or any other issue, is not dormant. The conflicts continue, even when we avert our gazes or our attention is captured by something else.

Too often, we treat issues as 'events' and unconnected 'incidents' that are confined to the space and time that they occur in, and not connected to their past appearances. But they continue to structure, impact and determine people's every day lived experiences in our country when we are not aware of them, or when they do not appear on our newsfeeds and timelines.

The search for singular causes for these issues is a futile one. The recurrence of xenophobia, intertwined with issues of race and class, can be traced to numerous interconnected factors and structures that cannot be prised apart. The questions that its appearance raises, and the action that it demands from both citizen and state, needs to be taken seriously, as often these issues, 'events' and 'incidents' will raise more questions than answers.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall argues: ''Honour is accorded by taking…ideas seriously and debating them, extending them, quarrelling with them…" This can be extended to the numerous issues that we continue to face in and beyond our geographic space. They demand to be taken seriously in this way. Fundamentally, they demand the acknowledgment that humanity is calibrated differently, despite the language of liberal ideals, and that the human experience is stratified differently according to the different parts of your identity and sites of belonging. There are different textures to the way that we live, and we see this return, in startling colour, constantly.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler