JUDITH FEBRUARY: We need to work far harder to wage peace
“later that night
I held an atlas in my lap
Ran my fingers across the whole world
Where does it hurt?
everywhere” - Warsan Shire
A heavy pall hangs over the world.
It is not the smoke from the fires on America’s streets, but the suffocating injustice meted out to George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis.
“I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd stands for every black American man or woman killed by police while walking home, a packet of Skittles in hand, or birdwatching in a park. He stands for the original sin of race that is, as former US Vice-President Joe Biden said, “America’s open wound”.
For more than a week, protesters have gathered in US cities to show solidarity with George Floyd and the countless others who have been victims of police brutality.
All of it unfolds against the backdrop of a global pandemic and the social and economic uncertainty that has come along with it.
It is at times like these when leadership matters most.
When a New Zealand mosque was attacked last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led by example. She held her nerve and in an emphatic address to the nation – and the world – she made clear that such an incident would not redefine New Zealand’s tolerance. Referring to the perpetrators, her words struck a powerful chord, “They are not us”.
Her leadership was a singular example in a world gone mad, a world where the rhetoric of hate seems to spread like wildfire across the internet and the Dark Web – a place where cowards can hide. Hate has become commonplace and almost ordinary as some global leaders spew forth in cheap attempts to garner votes by playing to the base instincts of our nature. It is shameless politicking in an age of unreason.
No-one peddles in unreason better than US President Donald Trump. This past week, his cartoonish behaviour, wielding a Bible outside St John’s Episcopal church in downtown DC, was a show of weakness, not strength. His narcissism knows no bounds.
Yet as Cody Keenan reminded Americans in 2018 when pondering its great constitutional experiment:
“And our birth cry was perfect: a declaration that all of us are created equal. It was written by imperfect men, of course, who owned slaves and denied entire categories of society the right to participate in the new government they instituted for themselves. They admitted as much, right there in our charter, a constitution that instructed us to do better, to form a ‘more’ perfect union.”
And so, amid the noise of now, it is also easy to become overwhelmed by what Keenan Malik has called “the rawness of anger”.
America, like so many countries around the world, ours included, faces a Reckoning - on human rights, equality and the creation of a more just society.
We are inundated with webinars and virtual meetings on how COVID-19 has changed the world and what shape we will all be in as we come out of this pandemic.
Certainly, for South Africa, the reckoning will be brutal. Here we have seen our own systemic inequalities and institutional failure play out in a kind of slow motion as the hungry queue for food and as police brutally takes the life of Collins Khosa. Let us remember his name and the countless others who have been brutalised during this lockdown.
But more than that, let us hold those in power to account for their deaths. The Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has shown callous indifference in relation to Khosa’s death. South Africans should not forget the violence of that death or others which occurred during lockdown.
Would that such deaths were unusual in South Africa. Who could forget the picture of Andries Tatane, hands flung up in surrender, being shot by police in 2011? And then in August 2012, the fateful Marikana massacre when police opened fire on striking mine workers and 38 miners were killed. The image of police dragging Mozambican Mido Macia from the back of a police car and causing his death also seems fresh in our collective memory. Yet no lessons seem to have been learnt.
In 2013, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) released its report into the death of Andries Tatane and then, made a number of recommendations, inter alia, that the SAPS improve the “training of police officers in managing and regulating gatherings to ensure that future police interventions in public protests result in a more peaceful and non-violent outcome”. Secondly, it recommended the SAPS, together with the HRC, develop a training manual for the SAPS Public Riot Unit. Thirdly, the SAPS must actively engage with communities where there are popular protests.
Where is the accountability and why are both Police Minister Bheki Cele and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula so unaccountable in relation to the excessive force used by police and SANDF?
South Africa therefore has its own work to do.
But, as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought so sharply into relief, violence also has many manifestations. They are equally painful and in South Africa it is specifically so that one is more likely to be the victim of abuses of power if one is poor, marginalised and without voice.
As Catholic scholar Christopher Clohessy has said so eloquently elsewhere:
“When a child dies of starvation or malnutrition, it’s a kind of violence. When human beings suffer from preventable diseases, when they are denied a decent education, housing, and opportunity to raise a family, or to participate in their own governance, it’s a kind of violence. We need to actively work against such an absence of peace, with the understanding that peace doesn’t just happen. There are things that make for peace: there has to be justice in the way people are treated. There has to be honesty, so that people can trust each other. There have to be moments when we are willing to compromise. Justice, honesty, and a certain compromise: these are the things that make for peace.”
Clohessy goes further to say that as a global society, we need to start dealing with the absence of peace, where we are, or we will be left only, with hindsight.
“Hindsight does not un-pollute our rivers and waterways, hindsight does not resurrect the dead we kill in our wars or plug up the holes in the ozone. Hindsight does not take away the visible bruises of physical violence or heal the invisible ones of verbal abuse. Hindsight is pretty useless. Years from now, people will look back with hindsight, and wonder why we were so slow to deal with the discrimination we imposed upon others….”
And so the violence of everyday life in so many parts of the world, including South Africa, means that we need to work far harder to wage peace; in the way we treat one another with dignity and respect, in the way we care for our environment, and ensure that children are safe, and have decent futures. The interconnectedness of global life in 2020 now means that deprivation and injustice resonate around the world, with frightening consequences. The days of living in privileged bubbles of security now seem forever over.
If a post-COVID world is to provide us with any opportunities, it is firstly to understand that the world needs fixing if we are to hold a new kind of peace, which has justice at its heart.
But while Warsan Shire is right, that it hurts everywhere, we become cynical if we do not also heed Marilynne Robinson’s words, as we seek to remake and repair in a post-COVID world, when she writes:
“What’s called upon is that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february