The deaths of 21 young black youth at Enyobeni Tavern in East London, Eastern Cape on 26 June 2022 is an unforgettable tragedy of our collective failure as a post-1994 society to restructure the colonial-apartheid spatial division and social engineering of our townships.
On 9 July, 2022 another violent tragedy happened, when 15 black people were gunned down in a tavern in Soweto — and this was not the only incident: on the same night in Sweetwaters in Pietermaritzburg, 12 black people were shot and four died, while eight were reported to be in a critical condition in hospital.
What do these violent incidents and painful deaths of young black people tell us about the nature of taverns in post-1994 townships? Are these isolated “new” violent cases emerging in South Africa’s townships?
If one wants to completely grasp the violent nature of taverns in townships, one must locate them within their historical context of colonial-apartheid violence that is still deeply embedded and normalised in townships. If we are going to focus only on taverns — as if violence is not a daily reality in every aspect of township life — we will be missing an important point about the current violence. Black people residing in townships live in permanent fear because of armed-gang-related violence.
The notion of trying to investigate the motive behind these mass shootings without clearly understanding the structurally violent nature of townships is shortsighted. People are robbed in their own residential areas and killed in their own houses for protection fees for their own businesses. While it is important to understand each case with its own complexities and multi-dimensional nuances, armed thugs have been socialised into violence in townships and need no motive to terrorise society.
There is no denying that drugs and alcohol abuse are major root causes of all forms of violence in township taverns. South African taverns have a history of keeping black people in a permanent state of drunkenness to demobilise them and mesmerise young black people in particular, in order to instil a sense of internalisation of townships’ material conditions. It is important to not only focus on taverns as if they were not located within a particular context with a history of violence.
Townships are violent by design
Taverns reflect the violent township colonial-apartheid racialised spatial make-up of where they are located. These recent deaths force us as a society to have a conversation about the broader township structural violence that most poor black people are socialised into and subjected to.
Frantz Fanon helps us to have a better understanding of townships when he says that the colonial world is a “Manichaean world”, a world divided into two: “the zone where the natives live [townships, where poor black people live] is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers” [suburbs, where whites live]. The two worlds that Fanon describes are separated by race and, it can be argued, are re-inscribed in post-1994 South African townships.
In post-1994, the zone of non-being (townships) continues to be a black-only space (the zone where black poor people live), while the zone of being partially changes its racial outlook (the zone where whites and black upper-middle class people live). Post-1994, townships continue to signify racial and classed urbanism where most white people and a few black upper- and middle-class people have safe spaces in the cities and towns, while the majority of blacks and poor communities are pushed into unsafe outskirts such as townships and informal settlements.
Zackie Achmat (2014) suggests that “suburbs such as Camps Bay, Claremont, Mowbray and Rondebosch are among the safest places to live” in Cape Town. Achmat’s observation clearly shows the racialised and classed urban spatial violence and division post-1994, and how black poor people in the townships are at the receiving end of this structural violence.
Fanon argues that townships are “zones of non-being”, the colonial spatial spaces designated for black people who have been racially classified as sub-humans with no sense of being. Fanon further tells us that black people in townships are “born anywhere, anyhow, you die anywhere from anything, it is a world with no space”.
On the other hand, Bantu Biko further suggests that “township life alone makes it a miracle for anyone to live up to adulthood”. The decolonial scholar, Nelson Maldonado-Torres also echoes Fanon and Biko and maintains that townships create a “hellish existence… the naturalisation of the non-ethics of war”.
These black existential philosophers and activists enable us to have a broader understanding of the current violence in our townships and force us to transcend the one-dimensional view of thinking the problem is only taverns. The life of black people in all South African townships is rendered disposable and meaningless and it can be taken at any time.
On 14 July 2022, Alex FM DJ Joshua Mbatha was robbed and killed on his way home in Alexandra, and in the same week, seven other people were killed in the same neighbourhood. Contrary to the popular view of limiting violence to taverns, Mr Mbatha and several other people were not killed in a tavern.
This then supports the view that taverns are a microcosm of a broader daily “normalised” structural violence in townships. People who stay in townships will tell you that this type of violence happens on a daily basis, if not every weekend. The only difference is that the current high number of deaths happened in one day.
The number of black people who die in South African townships is horrendous and abnormal. The current violent deaths cannot be understood in abstraction from the infestation of drugs flooding townships, drug lords and thugs fighting for territory, and thugs armed to the teeth with high calibre guns.
In the last 10 years, there has been increasing access to guns in South African townships and most of these guns are in the hands of thugs and young men who consider themselves amagintsa and tsotsis who terrorise communities.
The question is where do these guns come from? And what are our Minister of Police and the ANC-led government doing about this? One cannot ignore the deep-seated corruption in how thugs access these guns. The community and police cannot confront thugs with high calibre weapons — and the government and the minister of police know this and it is not a new revelation.
The usual quick-fix solution from our government is going to be legislating a new drinking age while the National Liquor Board will suggest that taverns strengthen their security measures. However, even though these are necessary, the problem is that these legislative interventions are not going to be enforced and no one will be held accountable for failing to uphold such interventions.
Black people in South African townships are on their own.
The state, politicians and the leadership of SAPS who are supposed to intervene and bring about long-term solutions to this crisis are living outside the townships, in safe gated communities and suburbs with private security, and this type of violence does not directly affect them. Hence, there is no sense of urgency in thoroughly dealing with this structural violence in townships.
The crisis requires active citizens, communities working hand-in-hand with the police and adequate police resources and the state playing an active role in disarming thugs and young people in townships.
The death of these young people gives us an opportunity to force the ANC-led government to deal with the apartheid urban spatial geographies and their lasting violent legacies. We need a clear coordinated effort from the minister of police, security and intelligence cluster and SAPS to deal with this urgently. DM