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Opinionista

Citizens don’t enjoy day-to-day security

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Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

In recent years, much of the focus of our national dialogue has centred on questions of corruption and the massive damage that corruption has done to state-owned enterprises. But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about a very large elephant in the room – we have a government and a state that does not place any real value on the lives of ordinary citizens.

The advent of the New Year is generally taken to be a time for reflection and renewal, a time for optimism. But year after year, South Africans hear harrowing accounts of the death and mutilation of initiates in the Eastern Cape. Much like fires in informal settlements, murder on the Cape Flats or the national epidemic of gender-based violence, the death and mutilation of initiates is something we all know to be a regular part of life in our country.

Yet, year after year, unnecessary and avoidable suffering continues. We all know it is happening, yet nothing is done to resolve the problem. The fundamental issue here is that our state simply does not value the lives of ordinary citizens. In this sense, it is correct to call it a neo-colonial rather than a post-colonial state.

In recent years, much of the focus of our national dialogue has centred on questions of corruption and the massive damage that corruption has done to state-owned enterprises. This is an important conversation that we need to keep having. But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about a very large elephant in the room – the obvious fact that more than a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, we have a government and a state that just does not place any real value on the lives of ordinary citizens.

The middle classes are insulated from this situation to a considerable degree by virtue of being able to purchase decent accommodation, private health care and private security. But the middle classes are not fully protected from the harsh realities of a society in which very little value is placed on human life.

The shootings in Johannesburg on New Year’s Eve drove home, once again, that we all live profoundly insecure lives. Eleven people were injured and two people were killed when shots were fired into Mary Fitzgerald Square in central Johannesburg, and six were injured in a drive-by shooting in Melville.

Melville is popular with academics, journalists and artists, and is a preferred destination for many of the academics who visit Johannesburg from abroad. The shooting there makes it very clear that while the middle classes are able to compensate for a failed state to a considerable degree, they remain vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a society in which violence is endemic, and the police services are staggeringly corrupt and incompetent. At the time of writing, no arrests have been made in the case of the Melville shooting, a shooting carried out in full view of numerous witnesses.

This shooting will do serious damage to South Africa’s international reputation, to tourism and to the confidence of the middle classes in their future of the country. Emigration, already at very high levels, is likely to escalate. All of this will do serious damage to the economy, and ultimately, to the credibility of the ruling party, and the state.

Internationally, the evidence clearly shows that when the middle classes no longer feel safe, they tend to turn to forms of authoritarian populism. The fact that the middle classes here are not safe could well produce support for authoritarian forms of politics. We’ve already seen a worrying glimmer of this in the protests against gender-based violence in Cape Town in which calls were made for the declaration of a state of emergency and the return of the death penalty.

If a charismatic right-wing figure emerged, perhaps someone like Herman Mashaba, and promised a crackdown on crime and disorder, voters may well be willing to accept authoritarianism as a price worth paying for security.

South African civil society has achieved two great victories in the democratic era. The first, of course, was the struggle for access to medication for people living with HIV and Aids. The second was the struggle against the grotesque corruption of Jacob Zuma and the Gupta brothers. It’s now urgent that civil society takes up, with real seriousness, the fact that we all, across class, live in a state of permanent insecurity.

Campaigns need to be mounted for the appointment of a competent minister of police, for competent officers to be given authority in the police and for serious action to be taken against the pervasive corruption in the police. At the same time, these campaigns need to educate the public about the grave dangers of an authoritarian and populist response to the crisis that sees unrestrained state violence as the answer to the intolerable levels of violence in our society. What we need is a professional human rights-based approach to policing, an approach that seeks to reduce violence.

Cyril Ramaphosa is often seen as a lame-duck president and he has certainly not been able to move decisively against the corrupt nationalists in his party. However, grassroots activists report a major reduction in violence from the police, and local structures of the ruling party. In Durban, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement, lost 18 members to assassinations and other forms of violence during Zuma’s years in office. They have not lost a single member to violence from the state or ruling party since Zuma was booted out of office.

This reduction in political violence is a real achievement for which Ramaphosa’s administration deserves real credit. But Ramaphosa’s government has not made any real progress at all against pervasive criminal violence. The crisis in the Cape Flats has not been addressed, gender-based violence continues to spiral and even the middle classes are unsafe in one of Johannesburg’s internationally famous neighbourhoods.

Very few South Africans have any trust in the police and many citizens see the police as little more than just another armed gang. Ramaphosa has never given any real leadership on the crisis of security and the crisis of policing, and it is vital that civil society generate the same kinds of pressure on this issue as was generated around the struggle for access to treatment for HIV and Aids, and the development of opposition to corruption of Zuma and the Guptas.

It is simply not viable for a society to function and prosper when its citizens don’t enjoy day-to-day security. DM

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