A Nation at War with the Poor

May 13, 11 A Nation at War with the Poor

If you have a chance, you would do well to read On State Violence by Rhodes academic Richard Pithouse over here. Pithouse has been involved in the grassroots movement Abahlali baseMjondolo as they have sought to secure the basic rights of poor and marginalised communities from a government which by all appearances is becoming increasingly hostile to their demands. Pithouse outlines in stark detail the rise of a government in recent years which believes that its power is legitimised by the material fact that it can wield force, rather than because it is broadly accepted by the people that it serves.

The article makes for chilling reading, as he considers the statistics surrounding police violence in the country. One in particular should make your ears prick up and your blood run a little colder:

The number of fatal shooting investigated by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) in each financial year has escalated from 281 in 2005/06 to 556 in 2008/09 and 524 in 2009/10. In the last financial year the ICD investigated 1,278 deaths in police custody and as a result of police action. Some of these deaths would have been from natural causes and some would have been justifiable. But it must be recalled that police killings under apartheid reached a peak in 1985 at 763.

Yes, you read that correctly. More deaths at police hands occurred in the last financial year than at the peak period of Apartheid, the most immediate historical memory of an oppressive state. Even if you account for the fact that the National Party was probably more than a little circumspect with their reporting of deaths in police custody, the fact remains that you could double the number of deaths in Apartheid police stations and prisons and then only just pip the current government’s total.

This is not a competition for who is a more brutal government, nor would it be rational or reasonable to even begin equating the current administration’s heavy-handedness with the massive structural dispossession that was the Apartheid system. What does seem to be strongly implied, however, is that we as a country have a police force that is becoming increasingly, worryingly violent. As incidents of protest rise across South Africa, and the government becomes increasingly heavy-handed in its response, it is becoming harder and harder to ignore the possibility that, in a very real sense, we are a country that is at war with the poor.

For years since 1994, the lack of delivery of basic services and the increasing anger and frustration that it is causing has been something that the broad apparatus of state security has been able to manage. Yet as incidents of violent clashes in the townships rise, it’s perhaps well past high time for South Africa’s haves to take a good, hard look at what is being done in their name to entrench an inequality from which they benefit.

And if that head-in-the-middle-class-sand while the townships burn metaphor sounds a little too familiar, then perhaps that’s because  it should.

Photo by Godo-Godaj