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We owe murdered activists more than mumbled platitudes

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

Keeping quiet in the face of injustice is consenting to it. We have to pull together to ensure that those who fight for our right to live in dignity do not die in vain.

Another week and another activist is shot dead, leaving behind a grieving family and a social justice mission unfinished. To whom is the baton to be passed?

It seems the killing of activists has now become a sport for the powerful and corrupt. I actually think the word corrupt has even begun to lose its meaning and nowadays seems to elicit little more than a raised eyebrow and resigned sigh.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This Martin Niemöller quote rings in my head as I will myself to write out the thoughts and feelings induced by the wanton and rampant warfare that human rights activists and ordinary people are facing with alarming regularity. Niemöller’s words urge us not to be quiet or tremble in the face of injustice, but to link arms in solidarity and humanity.

Thulani Maseko may not have been South African, but he did not deserve to die on 21 January for pursuing the human rights of the people of Eswatini. You may not be a shack dweller, but Abahlali baseMjondolo members Ayanda Ngila, Siyabonga Manqele, Nokuthula Mabaso and Lindokuhle Mnguni, who were all gunned down in 2022, did not deserve to die for fighting for dignity and housing for shack dwellers. You may not be a Gugulethu township resident, but Ntsikelelo Msweswe did not deserve to die two weeks ago for trying to keep his community safe.


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Pain, tragedy and death cannot only rouse us to action when we are directly affected. That is not what solidarity is premised on. Exceptionalism pulls us apart, isolates and, at worst, dehumanises those not deemed exceptional.

By definition, humanity is the ability to love and feel compassion for one another. “By leaving it to brave individuals like Thulani to hold corrupt regimes to account and by not sustaining solidarity campaigns even with our nearest neighbours, we leave human rights defenders vulnerable,” said Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood in an editorial this week. Heywood may have been speaking of Maseko specifically, but his words can be applied universally.

Read in Daily Maverick: “As we sit hungry and in the dark, it seems South Africa is in the middle of a nervous breakdown

What comes after the tears, the breaking-news headlines, the casual flipping to the next reported tragedy? If our authorities and institutions are themselves corrupt and unmoved by these murders most foul, surely we have to pull together to ensure that those who fight for our right to live in dignity do not die in vain? We, as the ones left behind, owe the dead more than just mumbled platitudes.

And we can start by making a commitment not to performative or single-issue outrage but to demonstrating and demanding that no death goes unmourned and that the murderers not be allowed to continue to live their lives with impunity. When we keep quiet in the face of the injustice and oppression of others, we consent to that injustice and oppression. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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