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The persistence of the past in the present

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The persistence of the past in the present

Professor Raymond Suttner

5th March 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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It is said a picture, tells a thousand words.  Of course, images must not be read in a static manner.  However, in looking at our surroundings, there is a sense of familiarity, the knowledge that  ‘we have seen much of this before.’

Let us look at who lies dead on the ground or dying from gunshot wounds or writhing from the impact of rubber bullets.  Who are those who fill prisons, either as awaiting-trial or convicted prisoners?  Who are the homeless or those living in ramshackle huts that easily catch fire or are flooded?  Who walk through sewerage in the streets where they live?  Who hide at the sight of police, even if they have committed no wrong?  Who may be assaulted or killed, generally with impunity, by police.  Are these citizens treated any differently from those who were victimised under apartheid? 

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Who are the protesters who are dispersed and forced to inhale tear gas, even if they are young children. Who are the children who die as a result of falling into pit toilets?  Who are forced to drink polluted water?  All of these form part of the same section of the population, the majority of the inhabitants of South Africa, black people, who were nationally oppressed under apartheid. 

What this imagery depicts is that those who are profiled as likely to commit a crime and are killed, belong to the same category of people who were targets of repression under apartheid. They might have committed a crime. However, they often are killed as part of a ‘mob’ or because they ‘appear suspicious’.

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As one examines the images around us, one is cautious not to simply say ‘this is the same as under apartheid.’  Much has undeniably changed since 1994.  Yet there are disturbing patterns of continuity. Those who were marginalised are generally the same as under the apartheid system, which enshrined rights for whites and no rights for black people.

Despite a democratic constitution, most black people cannot enjoy rights with the same security because they comprise the category that continues to arouse suspicion. They are the ones who fall victim to police bullets, or find themselves facing charges as accused.

In some parts of Johannesburg residents receive periodic text messages speaking about robberies. Residents are alerted that two or three ‘bravo’ (black) men were seen nearby. Even if there has not been a robbery residents are cautioned to beware of certain ‘bravo men’ who are driving this or that car, or are on foot. There is no certainty that these people intend to commit a crime.  It is not always reported whether or not they did anything, or if they were apprehended on suspicion, or if they were shot or assaulted by an overzealous member of the community, or whether the suspicion was later shown to be warranted or not.

‘Black’ has previously been, and continues to be a code word for criminality.    In the new, democratic South Africa that has been bought into being, repression is directed against black communities in the ‘war’ against crime.  The most disastrous was   the Marikana massacre yet other atrocities committed by police persist, and many have died.

The oppressive conditions of black people endure , beyond the character of policing.  Large numbers of black communities continue to live in dehumanised conditions, without basic utilities. These communities are often without safe and clean places for children to play.

Many people ‘hang around’ in informal settlements or townships all day and night because almost 40% of the adult population (the ‘extended’ definition of unemployment) are without work.  There is frustration and stress, and there are atrocities: as in the periodic vigilante killings of suspected gangsters or of other people, the motives for which we do not know.

Pervasive oppression against the majority extends to the rural areas. Chiefs and government are determined to return rural people to the rule of traditional leaders, within the same boundaries as the previous bantustans: rendering rural people vulnerable to being hauled before a chief and punished without the option of access to the common law.  Despite communities, especially rural women, repeatedly demonstrating their opposition, government and the ANC are determined to re-empower traditional leaders against rural communities, 
through colonially defined authority against rural-based citizens. For the moment, the Traditional Courts Bill has been defeated.

These are challenges that will not be addressed in forthcoming elections. But we need to recover our constitutional rights. We need to ensure that they are realized for all.  This may mean building a new coalition of forces within a broader constituency beyond existing parties:  based on such values as constitutionalism, respect and dignity of persons, clean government and an end to violence.  But first, we must dare to look at the picture, examine its complexities and intricacies.  This will help us make effective interventions to address the persistence of the past in the present.

Professor Raymond Suttner is attached to Rhodes University and UNISA.  He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za.  Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com.

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