The contrasting reactions to the murders of George Floyd and Collins Khosa at the hands of the police and soldiers respectively call for deeper scrutiny of the subject of racism.
46-year-old Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, a black man, died on 25 March after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. His sin was having allegedly purchased cigarettes with a fake 20 dollar bill. Throughout his life-ending ordeal, Floyd had pleaded for his life exclaiming several times that he could not breathe. His pleas fell on deaf ears as Chauvin, with his three fellow officers failing to restrain him, stuck his knee on his neck, slowly snuffing life out of him and subjecting him to a cruel death.
Floyd’s brutal killing triggered demonstrations in more than 75 United States cities against police brutality, police racism, and lack of police accountability.
Most of these protests turned violent marked by burnings and looting of stores. This cynical act of police brutality drew collective outrage from Americans across racial boundaries. Swift action followed with the arrest of Chauvin and his three fellow officers. Widespread condemnation of their wanton actions followed with Minnesota Governor, Tim Walz demanding justice and calling Floyd’s death video disturbing. “The lack of humanity in this disturbing video is sickening. We will get answers and seek justice,” he asserted.
Adding his voice to the general condemnation, Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey said, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence. For five minutes we watched a white police officer press his knee into a black man’s neck… When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense.” This egregious act of inhumanity also propelled all living former US presidents to release statements in reaction to the killing. American institutions also voiced their displeasure with the University of Minnesota announcing that it would be limiting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, and that it would no longer contract the local police department for assistance at major events.
Condemnation was not confined to America with foreign countries also expressing their concern with the turn of events. Protest actions were organised in many foreign countries to pledge solidarity with the American people. Religious leaders also joined this chorus of condemnation with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis both releasing statements. On the home front, the ruling ANC called for calm in the US urging President Cyril Ramaphosa to “engage with the US government” through diplomatic channels to “diffuse racial tensions and building social cohesion among the different races.” This is rich coming from the ANC in the light of the murder of Collins Khosa by members of the SANDF and JMPD during the nationwide lockdown.
40-year-old Alexandra resident Collins Khosa died on 10 April following a brutal beating at the hands of members of the SANDF and JMPD. This was after he was accused of having had a half-full glass of beer in his yard which according to the soldiers, was in violation of lockdown regulations. After trying to reason with the officers that their interpretation of the regulations was flawed, the officers were agitated by having their ignorance exposed and that is when the severe beating started.
According to a witness affidavit, four officers assaulted Khosa by pouring beer on his head, choking him, banging his head against a cement wall, hitting him with the butt of a machine gun, kicking slapping and punching him on the face, stomach and ribs and finally slamming him against the steel gate.
After almost two months after Khosa’s death the SANDF board found that the soldiers accused of killing Khosa could not be held liable for his death, citing there was no link between the injuries he sustained due to their actions and him dying. The report was basically a whitewash that absolved the soldiers and the police of the killing of Khosa.
Contrasted to the reactions to Floyd’s murder, Khosa’s death elicited muted reaction with Khosa’s family almost literally left to their own devices in their quest for justice. Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa Nqakula only managed to mumble an apology stating that “we hang our heads in shame.” The officers involved are still in their posts with the SANDF report seeking to ensure they are never charged and thus account for their criminal actions. We have not seen any outburst of demonstrations and protests. No statements of blanket condemnation from political parties. It seems South Africa is ready to move on just as we did after the murders of Andries Tatane, Mido Macia and the Marikana protesters among some victims of police brutality.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation has not released any statement to condemn the killing of Khosa. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe have not said anything to express their indignation. Jacob Zuma may be excused as he must apparently be too preoccupied with hefty legal matters in trying to ensure he never sees the inside of a jail cell. Institutions of higher learning and civil society organisations have not raised their voices in condemnation. The same can be said about religious leaders.
Thabo Makgoba has been missing in action and so has the SACC which recently made a call for the reopening of the churches during the nationwide lockdown. South Africa’s deafening silence in the face of the brutal murder of Khosa, will be permanently etched in the memories of his family. They will personify the words of Martin Luther King, Jr when he said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The pertinent question in this regard is why have we seen such lackadaisical reaction to Khosa’s murder compared to Floyd’s? The answer to this question is how racism is generally framed to reflect on the ill-treatment of blacks by whites. In almost all instances where a white person violates a black person, it is viewed through the prism of race and not seen as a violation of man by man. When a black man violates another black man, society attaches labels such as black-on-black violence. Had Khosa’s murder been perpetrated by white officers, we would have witnessed a far different reaction in South Africa. Collins Khosa’s life would have mattered and he would not have been dismissed as a victim of police “over-enthusiasm.”
The lesson to be learnt from the Floyd/Khosa episode is that the scale of our outrage for violations of man by man should not be determined by the race of either the perpetrator or the victim. In the meantime, it is not too late to start demanding justice on behalf of Khosa’s family.