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The lack of outrage over Collins Khosa’s death is a national disgrace

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In real life, Professor Balthazar is one of South Africa’s foremost legal minds. He chooses to remain anonymous, so it doesn’t interfere with his daily duties.

To return to the fundamental question: Do black lives not matter in South Africa, almost 370 years of colonialist and apartheid rule notwithstanding?

A man is in his home. There is a glass of alcohol in his yard. Security forces enter his home. Beer is poured over the man’s head. An altercation ensues and the man dies. That man was Collins Khosa, a 40-year-old resident of Alexandra township. Apart from his family and some within civil society, there is no outrage. 

The South African Defence Force (SADF) constitutes an inquiry which is merely a pathetically disguised exercise in exoneration. Almost two months later and in the face of international outrage at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, President Cyril Ramaphosa reacts by stating that we have not seen the end of the case regarding the death of Collins Khosa.

Seen the end? We have seen almost nothing for two months. Contrast this reaction to that of millions, including some police, in the US to the death of George Floyd. The scourge of racism, the original sin of the constitutional arrangements in the US, is finally being exposed; at least for the first time nationwide in over 50 years. At the very least, there is now a broader reflection on how it came to pass that a totally undemocratic autocrat won the election in 2016 on a wave of white resentment for anything other than white – make America white again.

We in South Africa are supposed to be different. We launched a constitutional democratic model based on a commitment to equality, dignity and freedom for all. The Constitution was designed, as President Mandela told us at his inauguration during that heady time in 1994, that our racist, authoritarian past would never, never be repeated. We would become a more cohesive, kinder nation, committed to the substantive dignity of all who lived in this country. Our colour and gender would not define our stake in the country. No longer would we have a police force that would act as a repressive force. We had learnt the lesson from the murders of Steve Biko and Neil Aggett, to take but two important tragedies.

The contrast between the reaction to George Floyd and Collins Khosa calls this ambition into serious question. Where are civil society, the unions, the clergy, the universities?

But, sadly, this was not the case – we seem to care less than millions of Americans and others in different parts of the world. George Floyd means more to them than Collins Khosa means to us. And the death of Collins Khosa is not an isolated incident. In the first week of the lockdown, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate announced that it had registered six cases of death as a result of police action. Yet, compare our reaction to that which has engulfed the Trump presidency in the past two weeks over the murder of George Floyd. Within a day the Minneapolis police chief removed the four responsible from the force and all have been charged. By contrast, in South Africa, two months have gone by and the SANDF produces a whitewash, the police who were on the scene at the time seem to have escaped censure and we are told that the police, in typical form, have not concluded their investigation.

So, to return to the fundamental question: do black lives not matter in this country, almost 370 years of colonialist and apartheid rule notwithstanding? It can surely not be an excuse that the security forces are predominantly black so they must get a free pass if they cause the death of someone like Khosa? If that is so, then tell it to Khosa’s loved ones or the relatives of those who have suffered the same fate. 

The brutal fact is that, in meticulous congruence with the 370 years of history, it is black residents who suffer the most, a fact that has been exemplified by the consequences of Covid-19, where black South Africans and residents bear the brunt. Yet, the very constitutional ambition with which we were imbued at the dawn of democracy was the construction of a new South African identity in which the humanity/ubuntu of the country would work to diminish the consequences of race, gender and class as we journeyed to a better place.

The contrast between the reaction to George Floyd and Collins Khosa calls this ambition into serious question. Where are civil society, the unions, the clergy, the universities? Take the latter. It is noteworthy that there is now a controversy at one of the preeminent universities about a pilot study concerning the enrolment of black students in the biological sciences. Leave aside the substance of this argument. The energy devoted to this issue by those who claim to be concerned about the legitimate and pressing issue of transformation of tertiary education stands in stark contrast to their silence over the death of Khosa. Their silence about an example of the fundamental racism in our society is a depressing reflection of how far we are from a consistent campaign of social justice for all, particularly for those who live in the townships, informal settlements and rural areas. The general reaction to the death of Collins Khosa is surely a national disgrace. DM

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