The murder of Lindokuhle Mnguni, the 24th leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo to be gunned down, has met with indifference on the part of the state and the ANC. Not a word, as before. Violence - primarily against the poor - relies on inequality, where some lives count more than others, as is the case more generally in the continued oppression of post-apartheid South Africa.
What is the meaning of the murder of Lindokuhle Mnguni and other Abahlali baseMjondolo leaders? It was not “senseless” as the South African Human Rights Commission says in a statement. (https://www.sahrc.org.za/index.php/sahrc-media/news-2/item/3216-media-statement-the-south-african-human-rights-commission-condemns-the-brutal-killing-of-lindokuhle-mnguni-a-leader-within-the-abahlali-basemjondolo-movement ). It made good sense to those who sent the murderers or condoned the murders, to eliminate political resistance to landlessness. I am not advancing the only explanation of this murder. But I will try to provide a context which links the murder to wider processes and threats to democracy in South Africa.
Democracy from below vs top-down oppression
Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed consciously to promote democracy from below. It was both a radical and a revolutionary intervention, in the sense that the democracy advanced was an attempt to restore the place of the demos, the people, in driving democratic life. It was returning to the original meaning of democracy, from ancient Greece, and revived in many ways in the popular power period of the UDF.
In its original meaning it was unthinkable that the people would not directly govern, that there should be the mediation of parties or other representative bodies. (A. Arblaster, Democracy, 3 ed, 2002, Aristotle, The Politics, 1962, pp155, 159.)
In one sense this was radical or revolutionary. But on the other hand, it was an expression of where the shack dwellers’ movement was located. They were and remain the poorest of the poor, who want desperately to have a roof over their heads, and to have food in their stomachs and provide opportunities for their children beyond those that they themselves had.
This movement, by definition, had to be a movement of democracy from below, not simply because they believed in it, but because they were at the bottom of the pile. They come from a people who under apartheid experienced oppression, poverty and absence of basic healthcare, schooling, water, electricity, and a range of other needs.
In post-apartheid South Africa, those who formed Abahlali had similar needs and experienced similar oppression, including in the post-Jacob Zuma period.
Democracy from below was both a choice and a result of how the people who formed Abahlali were located, what is referred to as positionality, where they were in the pile with the rich at the top and the poor at the bottom. They were among the poorest of the poor, without any or many of the opportunities that those at the top had to enjoy life.
In this situation, they were not satisfied with occupying land that was unused in order to make homes for themselves, despite intense opposition. They were not satisfied with risking and in fact losing lives in these efforts to protect their homes and their families and what they were building.
They also enriched their own understanding, as grassroots and worker intellectuals of a movement that created its own intellectuals through the processes of struggle and understanding that struggle and the forces against which they were waging resistance and the conditions of the social order within which they did this.
No official statement on these murders
In any conventional democracy, even in the United States that is known for violent deaths, if 24 members of a movement were assassinated, something would have been said by the head of state and the head of the dominant political organisation in the country. As with previous cases, no statement has been made by President Cyril Ramaphosa or any government or ANC officials about this murder.
It has passed with no comment whatsoever as if it is part of normal life in South Africa. And indeed, it is part of normal life for the poorest of the poor, for whom life is cheap. Life is cheap in South Africa, generally perhaps, but it is especially cheap for those who are the poor, and for whom being killed will have very few consequences for the murderers, if any.
Only two people have been convicted of murders for Abahlali losing 24 people.
It is shameful that the ANC, a once morally and politically powerful liberation movement that inspired millions to fight for their freedom, does not utter a word. It is shameful and very few other organisations have said anything about this, as with the previous murder, that of Nokuthula Mabaso, although the reaction to Lindo Mnguni’s killing is a little bit better.
The police duty to act professionally
Some of the statements of Abahlali have been to the effect that they cannot rely on the police and they are without any protection against these murderers. Broadly, I would agree with that and I think it is true that these murders are committed with impunity and with very little if any consequence. In many cases there is no proper police investigation.
It is a sensitive matter, but it needs to be said that it's very important for all of us to recognise that there are within the police service people who carry out the work on a professional basis. In acknowledging this, Abahlali and others may create a pressure and shame others into breaking ranks with those who condone murders, those in the police service who do not investigate murders, those who do not do their work properly.
In fact, there are some police who have recently shown that they are prepared to work professionally, despite this ethos whereby the police do not do their job when the poor and the movements of the poor are concerned. The alleged murderers of Nokuthula Mabaso, the last person to be killed from Abahlali before Mnguni, have been arrested and charged and ought to be on trial in the near future.
This has happened because not all members of the police force are prepared to carry out the shameful work of turning their backs on their duties and their oath of office and their obligations to serve faithfully under the law and Constitution of this country. It's very difficult in a time of sorrow to say this, but it's important that a path is followed that relates to the police force as not being a monolith. It's important to win over those who may be wavering, to win them over to do what they're supposed to do as their duty.
Violence relates to continuing inequality
One of the reasons why violence is so prevalent in South Africa today is that non-violence depends on equality of all human beings. As Judith Butler points out, the condition for the existence of the principle of non-violence is equality, that no life is ungrievable, that every life counts.
For violence to operate, there has to be a situation where some lives are valued more than others. The essential basis for non-violence is the equality of all human beings and the rejection of the elevation of individualism as everything, that is, in the notion of the abstract individual being sovereign, as opposed to a social notion of people being in relationships with other human beings towards whom they bear some responsibilities and owe duties, including the duty not to cause harm.
The prevalence of violence in South Africa that is present everywhere is connected with the continuation of inequality between human beings. That is why it is so easy to accept the killing of Abahlali leaders and Marikana miners and many others. Until that inequality is eradicated, some lives will be cheap, and some lives will have value and be grievable as opposed to those of the poor that matter very little to the neo-apartheid state in which we now live.
How do we restore legality and non-violence?
Clearly those in leadership of the state are indifferent to this spate of murders and other violence against the poor, especially those like Abahlali who also oppose the ANC. It is in the interests of all to live in an environment where the Constitution is observed and the law applied equally. People and organisations who hold to these values need to make their weight felt to ensure that our hard-won freedom is restored to full vitality.
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.