Opinion: A South African view of Black Lives Matter
By Treyvone Moosa
A collective optimism overflowed with the ushering in of a new decade, oh but little did we know that 2020 would be the horror film we never knew we bought tickets for. As the planet started to take a deep breath and half the world’s population settled into weeks of lockdown; tensions in the US were rising. Sparked by yet another violent killing of a black man at the hands of white law enforcement, the illusions of liberty and freedom were slowly fading away as the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets across America. The now martyred body of George Floyd was being laid to rest and a shift on a long-overdue conversation on race relations in the U.S. was about to take place. Protesters were demanding one thing: a recognition of the value of black lives.
As support for the movement grew across the globe,
I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the issues faced by black US citizens and the uprisings that shook South Africa to the brink of civil war. Though decades apart, at the heart of these problems is a response to an imagined and irrational fear that white people have of black bodies. The apartheid government coined this term “swart gevaar” or black danger; in propagating the myth that the black majority posed an imminent and existential threat to the safety and livelihood of white citizens. The white regime skillfully harnessed fear and used it as a strong tool to ingrain and maintain inequality and oppression. In today’s South Africa, “swart gewaar” remains a remnant of apartheid and the social inequalities left behind have but widened, as unemployment and poverty continue to ravage the country. Currently faced with the COVID -19 crisis, South Africa imposed some of the most stringent lockdown laws in the world. On social media, images of wealthy white South Africans stock piling and hoarding for the long upcoming weeks indoors could not be missed. In stark contrast, however food parcel collection points in townships showed queues of up to 4km long as the poor prepared to fight off hunger and stay alive. The brutal force by which the army and local police patrolled the townships claimed a further 7 black lives in the first two weeks of the lockdown. It begs the question: will the black existence always be perceived as an extreme threat or lesser than while whiteness is allowed to act upon the manifestation of its inherent freedoms?
At the core of white nationalism is the belief that whiteness is and should remain the norm and that white supremacy has an ordained and non-threatening agenda. The recent viral stories in the US of the Amy Cooper meltdown or the brutal murder of AhmaudArbery attest to the fact that all it takes is a manufactured sense of insecurity for whiteness to create the right conditions that can be used to punish and control black bodies. What is being acknowledged today in post-racial America is that the original control measures that kept blackness in check had not changed for the lived experiences of everyday black people. The systems that oppression and whiteness had put in place were doing well and were very much alive. Even after the abolishment of anti-segregation laws, the checks and balances in America were always in favour of whiteness and equally yet silently against blackness.
In his essay, “A letter from a region of my mind”, James Baldwin famously wrote, “One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear.” In those few words Baldwin articulated, almost perfectly, that real equality calls for more than just black economic development, it requires leverage. As systemic whiteness holds onto power through fear, one wonders how the generational fear of losing that power has continued to support the inequality of the racial agenda.
The Black Lives Matter movement can easily be compared to the events in South Africa on June 16, 1976, where the apartheid regime ambushed about 20 000 students who were peacefully protesting against Afrikaans as a primary language in The Bantu Education System. Many lost their lives in that fight against the big white oppressor. Years later, the Soweto Uprisings catalysed a movement and changed the course of the narrative for black civil rights in South Africa. Similarly, we can already see that these past two weeks of protests in the US have resulted in changes to the policy that certainly should go down in US history books. As black bodies scream enough is enough, the global spread of anti-racist pandemic has led to an outpouring of both support and criticism for the movement on social media, driving individuals, organisations and politicians in America to take a public stance on divisive issues such as racial equality and the defunding of police departments. It has become clear that silence or turning a blind eye on these issues can no longer be tolerated, thus calling for all races, governments, organisations and companies to take a clear and loud stance. Organizations and private companies have donated millions and public apologies have been issued. Although years in the works, in 2016, the Movement for Black Lives unveiled a long-awaited policy platform that outlined its essential beliefs. Included was a call to demilitarise law enforcement, end money bail and end the privatisation of public grammar school education in the US. The platform was bold not just in its recommendations, but also in its process. Officially titled ‘A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice’, the platform was the result of a year’s work by the coalition. It was proof that there is a vast, coordinated movement in the US that is determined to fight for black freedom.
Today though, that struggle continues on all fronts. South Africa, much like the US is one of many countries that is seeing a sharp increase in white nationalist agendas, at the heart of this is identity politics, although few have called it such. Since the liberation of black lives in South Africa, we have seen major reform and it would help policymakers in the US to have a look at our less than perfect record. One such example is educational reform when history lessons reinforce the notion that racial subjugation ensured the formation of modern society and that colonizers are the creators of civility, then how can we expect that even the youth of today would evolve? In South Africa, there have been changes in creating a framework of education that addresses the damages the apartheid regime created. Our young democratic country has been at the forefront of looking at the gaping social wounds left in poverty-stricken black townships and it has held systemic whiteness accountable for the lack of access to basic resources in these communities. Policies like Black Economic Empowerment have done well in shifting the scales in favour of the historically disadvantaged. In the US, as confederate statues are coming down, continued action is required in criminalising symbols of oppression like the confederate flag. In 2019, when the apartheid flag was finally declared a symbol of hate speech, it did a lot in recognising the injustices faced by black people in South Africa. Even as race relations continue to improve in South Africa, it is still a long winding road to true economic freedom. With movements like Black Lives Matter, we can only look to a future that truly values life beyond the colour of skin.