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©© Abahlali.orgIf decisive action is not taken to persuade South Africa’s police that their job is to facilitate rather than repress the right to protest, we may have to add more names to those of Solomon Madonsela, murdered by the police in Ermelo in February, and Andries Tatane, murdered by the police in Ficksburg last week, writes Richard Pithouse.

There are moments when a society has to step back from the ordinary thrum of day-to-day life and ask itself how it has become what it has become. There are times when a society has to acknowledge that it cannot go on as it is and ask itself what must be done to set things on a new and better course.

The historians of our children and grandchildren’s generation will write the history of our failure to redeem the promise of our democracy and the struggles that brought it into being. They will debate the significance of the various moments that have marked the plunge from the soaring language of the Freedom Charter and the Constitution to the stupid, ugly, strutting fascist camp of Bheki Cele and Julius Malema.

We can be sure that they will agree that when we confronted, for the first time, the sickening spectacle of an unarmed man being murdered by the police on the television news, a decisive point was reached. When the police murdered Andries Tatane in Ficksburg on Wednesday they murdered a man who had, with thousands of others, taken to the streets in protest at the unconscionable contempt with which the poor are treated in this country.

All these years after the end of apartheid, abundant rivers of Johnny Walker Blue have been drunk while millions live in shacks without water, electricity or toilets. We still have a two-tier education system that condemns most of us to a precarious, dangerous and difficult life. More than 50% of young black men and 60% of young black women are unemployed. This is an entirely unviable and unjust situation. The protest in Ficksburg, and the ongoing national rebellion of the poor of which it is part, are an entirely legitimate response to the sheer contempt with which the ANC treats the people in whose name its leading members grow richer as their language and the public performance of their power becomes more infused with violence.

Andries Tatane’s sister, Seipati, told reporters that he was ‘forever reading books’ and that he volunteered to help the matrics with maths and science at the local school. He helped, we are told, the Boitumelo High School to improve its pass rate from 38% to 52%. A witness said that he was singled out by the police after asking them why they were targeting an elderly protestor with their water cannon. He had planned, as is his unquestionable right in a democracy, to stand as a candidate in the local government elections next month.

The officers who murdered Tatane were still on duty in Ficksburg on Friday. The day after Tatane was killed Elizabeth Mtshali, due to give birth in a month’s time, was shot in the neck by the police with a rubber bullet while carrying a plastic drum to fetch water. At times like this you’d be forgiven for thinking that the shack settlements of South Africa were in occupied Palestine.

Of course Andries Tatane is not the first unarmed person to have been murdered by the police during a protest after apartheid. In fact he’s not even the first person from Ficksburg to be killed in this way.

More than ten years have passed since Michael Makhabane, a student from Ficksburg, was murdered by the police on the campus of the former University of Durban-Westville during a protest against the exclusion of poor students from the university. He was shot in the chest at point black range and from above with a shot gun.

In August 2004 around four and half thousand young people, many of them school pupils, from Intabazwe in Harrismith occupied the N2 in protest. On the first day of the protest twenty-four children were injured, thirty eight were arrested and a seventeen year old boy, Teboho Mkhonza, was shot dead.

But 2004 was the year in which the rebellion of the poor was just beginning. By 2009 the number of protests was ten times higher than it had been in 2004 and it was still higher last year. There is no record of the number of people that have been killed as this rebellion has spiralled around the country. The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is, plainly, neither a trustworthy or effective organisation. It has often been deliberately obstructive and has failed to investigate many clear instances of serious police repression including torture. But its 2010 report confirms that, despite its obvious failings, it investigated 1,769 cases of people dying in police custody or as a result of police action last year. Let’s be clear. The state is, cheered on by Bheki Cele’s swaggering machismo, waging some kind of war on its people.

We’re just under a month away from the local government elections and things may well get worse in the coming weeks. Elections are generally a dangerous time for grassroots activists and poor people’s movements but local government elections are invariably the most dangerous time.

On election day in 2004, Landless People’s Movement activists were tortured in the Protea South police station in Soweto. The day after the 2006 local government elections, the police shot Monica Ngcobo dead and seriously wounded S’busiso Mthethwa in Umlazi in Durban. They claimed that Ngcobo had been shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet. They lied, as their spokespeople habitually do. She was shot in the back with live ammunition.

The elections next month will be bitterly contested in many areas with various parties running credible candidates, popular independent candidates entering the fray and boycotts being organised. If decisive action is not taken to persuade the police that their job is to facilitate rather than repress the right to protest, we may have to add more names to those of Solomon Madonsela, murdered by the police in Ermelo in February, and Andries Tatane, murdered by the police in Ficksburg last week.

In 1976 Sam Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson being carried away from the police by Mbuyisa Makhubo planted a clear image of the brutality of apartheid in the global imagination. Events without enduring public images are often only private traumas. But an event with a public image, like the murder of Hector Pieterson, can divide a society into a collective awareness of a time before and after a public trauma.

In October 2005 two teenage boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré were killed by electrocution while fleeing the police in Paris. France was wracked with riotous protest for the next two months. In December 2008 Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a fifteen year old boy, was killed by the police in Athens leading to a month long insurrection across Greece. In December last year Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia after enduring one humiliation too many at the hands of the police. The consequences of the reaction to his death are still playing out in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Swaziland.

In the past it has been possible for much of South African society to deny the increasing brutality with which our police repress grassroots dissent. The police have generally had a vastly better capacity for public relations than any poor people’s organisation and so the average newspaper reader is usually confronted with the police spin on events or, at best, two very different versions of what has happened when a body is left battered or broken after a protest. But the video footage of the murder of Andries Tatane leaves no room for doubt about what kind of society we have become.

The ANC likes to pretend to itself that it is a revolutionary organisation that, alone, can claim fidelity to the struggles against apartheid. It likes to pretend to itself that all opposition is motivated by malicious reactionary schemers. It is time that those of us in and out of the party face up to the plainly evident fact that the most dangerous reactionaries are the ones leading the country. The new struggles to ensure that every woman and man in our country is treated with the dignity that every human being deserves are entirely legitimate.


* Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
* This article first appeared on The South African Civil Society Information Service (
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.