Defend Truth


The Political Mob, the State and Accountability


Adam Habib is Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

While we are trying to undo the damage under the Zuma administration, let us not allow a second element – the belief that the state and the police are incapable of protecting you – to root itself within society.

Two events on Twitter in recent weeks gave me the political chills. No, it was not the idiotic racist, Adam Catzavelos, who decided to post a video of how he enjoyed the beach because there were no “k*****s” on it. Nor was it the assumption of corruption by the Gauteng High Court’s verdict when it pronounced that Roy Marcus, the previous chair of the University of Johannnesburg Council, and Jaco van Schoor, the previous CFO who was fired, must pay back R14-million to the University.

I expect there to be racism and corruption, especially given our distant and recent past and I expect a democratic state and society to have the maturity to firmly deal with such transgressions and to impose the required sanctions on the guilty parties. But what really made my hair stand on end was some of the political reactions to these incidents, and the state and broader society’s acquiescence to this.

The racist video by Catzavelos went viral especially when an MP and EFF leader, called on “fighters” to identify the person so that he could be “dealt with”. Within hours, the person had been identified, as had his wife, brothers, and father. A boycott had been called for of the family business and of Nike, where his wife was purported to work. One of the more disconcerting tweets in the trail of responses was one which contained a photograph of a young man with a knife and the words “let’s find his children”.

And yet even then, there was absolutely no outrage at this mobilisation of a political mob to address this racist posting. Instead, a few celebrities even re-tweeted the call to identify the individual and his family, as did a number of political leaders across the political spectrum.

The second incident involving Roy Marcus and Jaco van Schoor was just as frightening. Again, it involved the mobilisation of a political mob which tweeted videos of their demonstration outside the Technology Innovation Agency and the Johannesburg Country Club (not sure why), and outside what was ostensibly Jaco van Schoor’s house.

In the video, an activist is seen to speak on the intercom demanding that Van Schoor comes out and receives a memorandum but it is hard to mistake the threat implied by the gathering outside his home. Essentially, a political mob decided to take the law into their own hands and effectively threaten action against individuals. And again, political authorities, the SAPS, and the rest of us remained silent in the face of what had effectively become an example of political mob justice. I suspect that many people’s response would be: this is just an act of political spectacle by a political party. But to allow it to continue without protest is to enable the naturalisation of such political behaviour in our society.

Let me be clear; racism and corruption should not be tolerated in a democratic South Africa and these individuals should face the proper sanctions. This must, however, be done by appropriate officials of the SAPS and our prosecuting authority; not by a group of self-appointed activists who effectively constitute a political mob. These kinds of actions do not enhance democracy and accountability. They undermine it because it is promoting mob rule and mob justice. We have seen this before when groups of activists mobilised to defend Jacob Zuma and to attack all those who questioned his credentials to rule.

We saw it more recently when political mobs decided to go into stores to trash them or, even worse, to schools where altercations have occurred. Imagine if in one of these incidents someone feels threatened, pulls out a firearm, and someone is killed. All hell will be unleashed. And yet the SAPS, and the state, have allowed this kind of mob justice to prevail and even spread across the society. 

It is perfectly legitimate for there to be social outrage at racist remarks and corruption. And it is even legitimate for this social outrage to be directed to the boycotts of businesses which employ and defend racists and corrupt individuals. But this form of protest should not be allowed to transform into a political mob identifying family members, visiting them at their homes and businesses and threatening to harm them. We allow this at our peril. All citizens in our country, even ones we don’t like, are entitled to security. If they have violated the norms and rules of our society, they must be subjected to sanction but by the appropriate authorities, not self-appointed vigilantes. Otherwise we run the risk of individual citizens deciding that they have to protect themselves, and then our public space simply becomes an anarchic arena ruled by those with the biggest muscles and guns.

The structural inequalities in our society are partially the cause of the violence we experience on a daily basis – especially affecting those who are young, black and women, who continue to be socio-economically marginalised. But structural inequality alone cannot explain the levels of our violence and the violent reaction to some political situations. After all there are other highly unequal societies with far lower levels of violence.

The additional distinguishing feature of our society is the widespread belief that there are no consequences for violence. This is especially true of activists in political parties and community organisations, many of whom believe that one has to be violent and to commit arson to be heard. This neatly dovetails with the politics of spectacle that has become the strategic orientation of some political parties and increasingly that of many young activists across all political lines. The strategic orientation and the propensity to engage in violent actions has consolidated itself because of a widespread belief that there are no severe consequences for such crimes.

This is why so many of our protests and strikes become violent. And we can wring our hands as much as we want; we will not arrest the violence in our protests until we develop the political will to impose serious consequences on those who commit violence and on those who promote it.

These mob reactions to racism and corruption are happening at the same time when other activists are petitioning President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and declare amnesty for student activists who were jailed and found guilty of violence in the student protests. The call for amnesty has been made on the grounds that this was a political act for a progressive cause. The assumption implicit in this argument is that progressive activists are somehow entitled to commit violence and break the law because their cause is legitimate.

But is this not establishing two sets of laws; one for political activists, and another for ordinary citizens? Is this not reproducing another generation of unaccountable political elites? And if this is the case, how are we ever going to bring an end to the rot of political elites who engage in state capture, fraternisation with known criminals, corruption, the destruction of public institutions and ultimately the erosion of state capacity?

It is true that justice in our society must be accompanied by mercy, especially for our children. Young people should not be burdened for the rest of their lives for minor infractions when they were young. But it is worth noting that some of the acts were not minor infractions; R800-million worth of damage was enacted during this period. In one incident, guards were locked up in a building and it was then set alight. This was essentially an attempt to murder individuals. And frankly the nonsensical narrative circulating that these actions were prompted by police action has to be challenged. Yes, police did in some cases act outside of their mandate of being measured and they should be held accountable for this. But in almost all cases, police were deployed in universities only after protesters had become violent, committed arson and threatened the rights and lives of many others. 

Any public deliberation on amnesty must consider the terms on which it is implemented. First, a blanket amnesty would equate all violations as the same but we know that this is just not the case. A disruption of a class cannot be equated to the deliberate torching of a library, which itself cannot be equated to the attempted murder of individuals. How then do we effect a blanket amnesty? A second but related concern is, are we really considering an amnesty that is unconditional? Does there not have to be recognition that violence and arson are not legitimate forms of protest and should therefore not be allowed? I have not yet heard any of those requesting amnesty recognising that their behaviour was unacceptable in a democratic society.

Instead, we have had obfuscation of the facts, deflection of the issues, and an emotional appeal about being young and therefore they should not be severely punished. Moreover, current protests at multiple institutions around the country have continued to be violent and arson has continued to remain a preferred tactic of protesters. Another young life was lost at the Tshwane University of Technology just last week. It seems as if no lessons have been learnt. How can we then, in these circumstances, even consider an amnesty without conditions?

President Ramaphosa has in recent months called for increased investment to enable inclusive growth. But this is never going to happen as long as we allow violence, extra judicial action by political mobs, and vigilantism to prevail in our midst. Indeed, if matters continue as is, we not only risk not attracting the required amounts of investment but we could be feeding a belief in society that you cannot trust the state to protect you, and that you need to procure your own muscle to be safe. This would of course undermine the social pact – the philosophical foundation – on which any democratic society is founded. It would essentially enable the beginnings of a gangster state. 

A gangster state is really organised on two elements. The first is a weakening of the rule of law and the institutions of justice within the state. The second is the widespread belief that you cannot trust the state to protect you and that you need to procure this service from others within the society. Some elements of the first were already enabled under the Zuma Administration. And while we are trying to fix this, let us not allow the second element – the belief that the state and the police are incapable of protecting you – to root itself within society.

For were this to happen, all of us would lose, especially those who are the poorest and the most marginalised in society. Avoiding this political scenario and outcome requires the courage not only to act against racists and the corrupt but also against political mobs, vigilantes, and those who engage in extra-judicial action. It requires there to be consequences for violence and for those who act outside the law. For without this, no progressive society is possible. DM

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes in his personal capacity.


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