6 September 2020
We’re a nation that needs serious mental check-up
It has become a marked feature of South African life that, from time to time, we get brutalised in ways that beggars belief and, in the ordinary flow of things, there are no consequences for the bandits.
Part of the democratic promise is the enforcement of a social contract in terms of which the state becomes not just the steward of our destiny, but a principal enforcer of important constitutional rights which, if not enforced, renders the premise of our governance shaky.
The system of governance, here and elsewhere around the globe, can never be perfect. It never was. And nobody expects it to be. It is when the state, in the eyes of the victims, is unwilling to uphold its political obligation that residents ask whether philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right when he observed: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
Literally and figuratively, many of us are in chains. The system seems designed to ensure we do not succeed. Some, relying on state power like the police, for example, kill us like it’s a natural thing to do. No compunction. Let’s move to the next victim.
Looking at how Nathaniel Julies was killed, it’s almost like the police do not care or are unaware, of their contribution to social order. After all, keeping order is why they exist. But they behave almost as if they think they are the only ones with access to guns, or that they’re the only ones with instincts to kill when, in fact, the social contract is that ordinary people must desist from so-called jungle justice in return for law enforcers being a social mediator of order.
“The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man [human beings], by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formally lacked,” observes Rousseau.
Thomas Hobbes explains the “natural condition of mankind” as a stateless state in which there is “war of all against all” in an unending pursuit of power.
Yet the police, here and elsewhere, seem to lack basic training in keeping us from unleashing this violence because they are the primary perpetrators. Their predisposition to violence as a way of controlling crowds belie a social pathology afflicting, I suppose, our entire populace, if not nations of the world.
In short, we are a brutalised people. We have emerged from the most vilest and brutal of systems of oppression registered on earth. Whichever way you look at apartheid, we are products of some or other brutal sequence of events whose impact on our psyche still requires work from psychologists.
In countries that have endured war, like Sarajevo, attempts to study the impact of such wars on residents are intentionally pursued.
We don’t do that. We celebrate reconciliation and move swiftly to hand over guns to victims and perpetrators of our wars, and thrust them into the police force and hope for the best. With all the scars and the rage, they shoot to kill when they feel ignored.
Whether poor people like Julies understand police instructions or not, who cares? They just get shot. Where there is no protest and media attention, the perpetrators know they will get away with it. By and large, they do. To be clear, this is not only a South African phenomenon. Ours is largely ignored because it was not, in a classical sense, an open war – but a slow-burn type of war.
The mistake we make is to think the slow burn ended with the legislated
demise of apartheid in the same way Americans, for example, made the
error about slavery. Everywhere, we are free but remain very much in chains.
George Floyd was free, but the white cops had the chains. Nathaniel Julies was free until the black cops showed him his chains.
By its very nature, and how things are done, our country brutalises its people. Today, very few of us are talking about Bulelani Qolani. Yes, many may not remember his name? To them, he is simply the “naked man evicted in Cape Town by the racist DA government”.
The court has now ruled that his brutalisation and the destruction of his shack by the city was illegal. But it’s cold comfort. His bums were beamed to the world. He carries the scars.
The worst thing is that he is who we know, if at all, because he was naked. There are many others brutalised just like him, whose names we have not forgotten like Qolani’s.
Our chains, often, are physical.
Other times, though, they dwell deep in our hearts, away from media cameras.
EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi wrote on Twitter about retail chain store Clicks’ hair apology: “Racism is violence!” That’s another way a people can be brutalised.
This violence, this racial brutalisation, condemns millions of men and women to sub-human life.
They grow up believing that in order to make it in corporate South Africa, for example, they must never challenge the views held by their white counterparts. They become big grown men, and women, without the proverbial balls to call nonsense for what it is.
This is why Clicks can be as racist as H&M was, as Dove was, as the killers of George Floyd were, as the kidnappers of Saartjie Baartman were, as the barbaric killers of Hintsa were, as the hunters of Sekhukhune were, as the killers of Tshilwabusiku were and so on.
The cycle knows no end.
The sad reality is that this year, this very painful year, will end and 2021 will dawn with new victims, new George Floyds, new Nathaniel Julies until we course correct.