When the world has joined in solidarity with the Black Lives Movement following the killing of George Floyd in the US, why is the same concern for Black lives conspicuous by its absence in South Africa? asks Kelebogile Motswatswa.
Every time I see #BlackLivesMatter trending on social media, I want to pinch myself because there is something dream-like about having to state the obvious on such a large scale.
There is something incredibly surreal about having to convince the world of our personhood and our right to honour, respect and worthiness. Centuries after slavery and decades after colonialism, Black people are still fighting to been seen, heard, and protected; it is genuinely beyond that which I can fathom.
The brutal killing of George Floyd in the US, which led to country-wide protests, saw Black people around the world lamenting the disregard for Black life. Even in South Africa, we took to the streets of social media with righteous indignation to lend our voice to the condemnation of the oppression of African-Americans.
In response to the merciless killing of George Floyd, South Africa’s governing party, the ANC, acknowledged that the US “places a perilously low value on Black lives”. Upon reading this, I wondered: if the ANC (and South Africans in general) knows that Black lives ought to be seen as valuable, why, then, does South Africa continue to be an anti-Black country, even 25 years after the dismantling of apartheid?
The matter of Black Lives in S Africa
Last December, when having a social life wasn’t a criminal act, I went to a restaurant in the fanciest part of Jo’burg to meet a friend of mine. The restaurant was full but I could see a few seats outside so I decided to ask the waiter if I could get a table. He said there were no seats outside.
Disgruntled, I decided to approach a different waiter, feign a British accent and see if I could get the seat I wanted. As I had expected, I was given a lovely seat, facing the sun. I pretended to be British because I knew that as a Black person from the United Kingdom, I would receive better treatment than a Black South African. This incident was minor, but I share this anecdote to give an example of the invisibility of Black lives in South Africa.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tanish Anderson; the world knows these names, the sound of them is very familiar, even to the South African ear. However, names that won’t ring that loud a bell are those of Collins Khoza, Elma Robyn Montsumi, Sibusiso Amos, Adane Emmanuel and Petrus Miggels, all of whom were among the 12 people that were killed by police officers and members of the South African National Defence Force during the lockdown period.
Let us not forget Andries Ntsenyeho, who was one of the 44 killed in the Marikana Massacre of 2012, and Mido Macia, the Mozambican taxi driver who was killed by South African police in 2013.
Police brutality and the devaluing of Black lives are not unique to America – we live in a society where our leadership undermines the value of Black lives.
In response to the killing of Collins Khoza, who was assailed and beaten to death in his own back yard, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “They [the police] let their enthusiasm get the better of them.”
The stark contrast between this and the response to the killing of George Floyd is unsettling, upsetting and infuriating. In a statement regarding the ‘racial impasse’ in America, the ANC even recalled their fight against Apartheid, stating that “the ANC fought and defeated racial supremacy and will not be cowed to remain silent in the face of the lynching of Black people wherever they manifest.”
In her song titled Abantu (Black people), South African songstress and lyricist par excellence Zoe Modiga sings: ihlupheko iyadabukisa, ayisifaneli njengabant’ abamnyama. Loosely translated, the lyrics of this beautiful isiZulu song mean: Poverty is disheartening, it is not the life to which Black people have been called.
The first time I heard this song, which is taken from Modiga’s second album, Inganegwane, I was rendered lachrymose because I’ve long associated deplorable living conditions with Blackness.
In South Africa, Black is the natural hue of systemic injustice and the non-violent manifestations of Apartheid that echo in the streets of townships and villages in the outskirts of privilege.
Black people in South Africa remain in circumstances that are misrepresentative of their worth, and blackness continues to be a barrier to a decent livelihood. An example of this is the recent evictions of people living in the predominantly black Khayelitsha township of Cape Town. There, a resident, Bulelani Qolani, was dragged naked from his shack.
Our leaders have been slow in their response to the plight of the majority of poor Black people, which has led to the protracted issue of inequality in South Africa. Government officials use state coffers to fund their lavish lifestyles instead of improving the lives of those who voted them into power. Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu recently published a report that revealed over R32bn ($1.95bn) in irregular municipal expenditure.
Afrophobia is another by-product of anti-blackness in South Africa. It is an epidemic that belies the Rainbow Nation and democracy narratives that we like to laud as being post-1994 victories.
Those who hold high positions of leadership have also perpetuated hateful sentiments that lead to the victimisation of our brothers and sisters from other African countries. Black South Africans need to be informed about the real causes of socio-economic entropy and inequality.
An inclusive Black activism
Why are African-American Black lives considered with much higher regard than African lives? Have South Africans become desensitised because Black suffering is part of our quotidian reality? Have we become acclimatised to this accepted anti-Blackness, manifested as poverty, unequal access to quality education and health and unemployment as just a part of the genetic make-up of our country?
What does BLM activism look like in a continent where Black lives are the majority? How do we structure that conversation here? Those of us who are privileged need to stop being comfortable because we managed to get a seat at the table. In our silence, we are complicit. We need to confront anti-Blackness in South Africa with a ferocity that will break the manacles of injustice and inequality. I admit it is a heavy burden to carry, but the very fibre of our society is unravelling.
In South Africa, the socio-economic challenges faced by Black people, and Afrophobic sentiments, are not confronted with the same vehemence and disdain as the killing of African-Americans, and this needs to change.
We should always stand in solidarity with Africans in the Diaspora, but we must also re-evaluate how we perceive the worth of African lives on the continent. Africans also deserve a life of dignity and to be regarded as human beings, not as the subaltern Black sheep of the global family. We need an inclusive activism that acknowledges that all Black lives matter.
Read more articles from our African lives matter report