The violence that may be our worst enemy

A bullet hole pits the glass at a school's reception. File Picture: Courtney Africa/ANA

Let there be no doubt at all that South Africans are among the most violent people in the world. In every form of violence, we have among the most shocking statistics in the world, whether it is about murders, rapes, domestic violence, labour strikes, township protests or student unrest. In this regard we are in fact reliving our history.

I argue that there is in fact no country in the world in which the capitalist system developed as violently as it did here. This systemic violence in various forms – the uprooting of people from their homes in the rural areas and forced by various measures to seek work in the cities and the structural violence imposed by the migrant labour system and its mine compounds, hostels, pass and influx controls – was how capitalism was birthed and baptised in South Africa.

That horrendous violence meted out by Dutch and Afrikaner nationalism and British imperialism on black people, since the earliest days of slavery and the genocide against the Khoisan people in the Cape Colony, is necessary to grasp in order to understand the very deep historical roots of structural, institutional and personal violence in this country. To know and understand today’s violence in its various forms we must begin there.

The point however is that the history of this systemic and ubiquitous violence in countless forms left as deep scars, to varying degrees, on all the people of this country, but most of all on the oppressed and exploited and their children. There is no doubt that much of that violent history affected emotionally and psychologically all subsequent generations. Today we have horrifying signs of the brutal and savage legacy of such violence all over the country. 

Nothing has been spared: schools, universities, libraries, treasured art works, public infrastructure in townships and even hospitals. Schools burnt to the ground in Vuwani in 2016 come to my mind, as does the violence inflicted even in ICU wards in hospitals during strikes; teachers raping students; students assaulting and raping other students, even children; the heinous ‘’necklace’’ method of burning to death suspected police informers in the 1970s and 1980s, often by mere hearsay or vague suspicion.   

However, we have been savaged by and internalised not only the violence of our history but also the violence of what has happened in this country after 1994. Much or most of the violence in schools, universities and townships are not expressions of people worshipping mindlessly at the altar of violence but of the accumulated anger of failed promises and unmet basic needs.  

However, it is no longer good enough to justify today’s horrendous violence by that history. This is because no matter how justifiable the cause might be and therefore the violence it might lead to it does severe immediate and long term damage to both those targeted and the perpetrators, the consequences of which can be so traumatic that its destructive effects  in various ways lasts for many years. The terrible violence black children have been experiencing for many years in townships is going to take many years to deal with, if it is dealt with at all.      

But there is another major concern for many years now. The sight of fires and smouldering and bellowing smoke in black townships across the country has been common on television, often from burnt down public infrastructure. Those who question and criticise such destructive acts are correct, if for no other reason than that it often not only does not achieve anything towards the satisfaction of the demands made for better services, but it actually worsens the situation because funds that could have gone towards meeting those demands must now be spent on replacing destroyed or damaged infrastructure. That is severely counterproductive in various ways, to say the least.

There are also other forms of chilling violence in this country which one hardly hears of anywhere else in the world, like a disgruntled employee who was dismissed or ill-treated. In one case instead of referring the matter to the CCMA the man returned to the employer’s home with friends, gained access, raped and brutally murdered both the employer and her daughter thereafter by setting their bodies alight. There have been several similar cases over the past decade. How does one even begin to fathom such macabre acts? This is the country we live in, sadly.       

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and commentator.