First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I have shared previously in this column my memories of growing up in New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha) and in Diepkloof, Soweto, in the early 1990s. Memories of stayaways, real guns, ammunition and traditional weapons, Casspirs, burning tyres and strangers barging into our house seeking refuge. I have vivid childhood memories of utter chaos.
I have seen a person burnt alive by necklacing. I was not even 10 years old. The violence had consequences on where we could and couldn’t go, our health, family life, work and schooling. My soft and kind grandmother didn’t do well with violence. Perhaps because she was physically immobile, she was particularly vulnerable. I absorbed my grandmother’s anxieties with each loud bang or door swung unexpectedly open or with each sight of a white person or Casspir that shook her and added to her uneasiness. Looking back, I see all the ways we lived in fear.
Non-state violence occupies a paradoxical place in my mind. On one hand it terrifies me and on the other I understand its necessity as a political tool. Many theorists have explored the “difficulty of separating politics and violence, and also the improbability of formulating a harmonious relationship between violence and politics”. Some theorists offer that the structure of power within social movements explains the greatest variation in both the use of non-state violence and its political effectiveness. Violence is more politically effective during periods of unipolarity than during periods of multipolarity within each movement.
The use of non-state violence by liberation movements under apartheid was largely done so under conditions of unipolarity among the people fighting against apartheid. The liberation movements abided by the ethics of revolution. Historically, the use of non-state violence had its own thought-out strategy and rules such as refraining from targeting civilians. It was also a multipronged strategy supported by other non-violent tactics such as sanctions and boycotts. So, in that sense, I understand violence as a strategy for change. But it doesn’t make being on the receiving end of its consequences that much easier.
The violence of the 1980s not only destabilised the apartheid government, but us too. We are its collateral damage. No one survives it unscathed. That is a factor that informed the strategy of the early 1990s to avoid a full-on civil war. Political violence costs its beneficiaries too – even when it is for a greater cause sanctioned by the people.
And in this moment of riots in South Africa, I am wary because it will cost us all – but mostly it will cost the vulnerable people it claims to be advocating for.
As riots spread in the United States in 2020 over police brutality, many invoked this quote by Martin Luther King Jr (MLK): “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?… And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Yet in the same speech MLK expresses his unease with violence, expressing his belief and support for non-violent tactics in the “struggle for freedom and justice” and his disapproval of riots as “socially destructive”.
So, as we witnessed images and videos of violence this week, I had to confront my uneasiness again. The root of my fear is my experience as a little girl in the township who was almost caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out. The violence by Zuma supporters and those opportunistically jumping on this bandwagon must be unequivocally condemned for the mugging that it is.
But the riots we have seen sporadically over the years by those who have legitimate grievances because of the state’s violence against the people cannot be ignored. They must be understood and responded to, not with violence from the police and the army, but by significant structural changes in our country.
I share MLK’s view on violence. If that makes me weak or counter-revolutionary, so be it. My personal experience means I cannot support it, but I can understand it and also question its effectiveness – especially in our current state of multipolarity and seeming lack of leadership or strategy.
Not being for violence doesn’t mean you are for the status quo. It is recognising that, for the gun-shy like me, there are a number of ways to disrupt patterns of injustice without it costing our souls. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.