Black Academic Caucus
Black Academic Caucus

On violence: Whose bodies matter?

By Barbara Boswell

Violence is never acceptable.

In a democracy, where legal instruments exist as a remedy to injustice, the use of brute force to seek and maintain power or settle scores is abhorrent and unacceptable.

Yet we live in a country saturated with violence. Violence is in sharp focus as it spills over into the relatively protected enclaves of university campuses, in contestations over access and space.

It is interesting to note the discourse that has developed around violence on different campuses affected by the #FeesMustFall movement, and especially at UCT. Watching events unfold on this campus where protests against financial exclusion have been relatively “peaceful”, I am struck by the inconsistencies in outrage in responses to a range of incidents couched as “violence”.

Our uneven and hypocritical responses to various acts of violence have left me wondering: When we talk about violence, what are we really talking about? Which acts of violence “matter” as contemptible? On which bodies is it acceptable to mete out violence and which bodies’ violation remain unremarkable? Whose bodies are sacrosanct, evoking horror when bodily integrity is violated, and on which bodies is violence business-as-usual?

Recently I met with a group of colleagues to do some work at a coffee shop in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. While we were working, a security guard started prodding with a baton a homeless man who was begging at the door. The latter’s offence was making his presence felt just outside the calm, serene space of the café through begging for food from those bodies comfortably ensconced in the café. As we watched this scene unfold, all but one of us sat in uncomfortable silence. We didn’t want this man to be beaten up, yet his obstruction of the doorway discomfited and even offended us.

We silently watched the guard at first gently, and then, not so gently, poke the man with his weapon in an attempt to remove his “distasteful” body — a signifier of our collective failure as a society — so that we could go on sipping our lattes and complete our work.

I cannot speak for the group, but I felt a guilty sense of relief when the homeless man was removed from my sight as his presence had interfered with my productivity and the enjoyment of a good coffee. In that moment my need for a protected space where I could eat and work in peace overrode any concern for the violence the homeless man was subjected to by having his body forcibly removed from a public space.

By my silence and inaction I tacitly approved the use of violence against another human being’s non-violent body so that I could continue to drink my coffee in peace. And what was his crime? Asking, metaphorically, for a seat at the table of being well-fed, well-clothed, and a productive citizen of society — basic rights that all citizens in a democracy should be able to access.

Recently our university campuses have been confronted with a similar situation on a crisis scale. Disgruntled students, stretched by an economic burden they simply cannot meet, are demanding more access and fewer obstacles to their own seats at our tables.

At UCT, FeesMustFall has waged a disciplined campaign of non-violent, civil disobedience. This involved, in part, obstructing access to campus by barricading main entry ways — a strategy aimed at giving the privileged few an insight into the experience of being barred from what is good, enjoyable and productive in life.

UCT students protest against higher education fees. (David Harrison)

UCT students protest against higher education fees. (David Harrison)

For the UCT community, this exclusion lasted a few days. It was a terrible inconvenience during an already stressful time. Others, by accident of birth, are routinely barred throughout their lives from meaningful, productive work, the means to make a decent living, the opportunity to give their children an education. This type of exclusion is not merely an inconvenience but a humiliating, relentless assault on human dignity, the type of structural violence that profoundly curtails the possibility of an actualised life for millions of South Africans.

The students involved in this type of non-violent, civil disobedience were immediately admonished for their “violence” when they prevented access to the UCT campus. Now note — not a finger was laid on a single person trying to enter the campus. The protestors simply used their bodies and inanimate objects as a disruption to the status quo.

In doing this, they became undesirable, abject bodies on the hallowed ground of UCT. Like the homeless man disturbing the doorway to the privileged space of the coffee shop, the mere presence of these students refusing the spatial arrangement of exclusion, disrupted the privilege of those who felt entitled to their access to the exclusive space of the university.

When the privileged are confronted with their privilege, there are two ways to proceed: acknowledge it, and work to share some of the good things in your life for the greater good of everyone (this inevitably and rightfully leads to some loss of privilege) or cling to it. Many at UCT chose the latter option, by which logic peaceful, non-violent protesters were discursively constructed as “violent” in order to justify the use of violence against them.

The irony is that those recast as inherently violent “thugs” bore the brunt of the actual violence inflicted upon bodies at UCT. They were teargassed, stun-grenaded, rubber-bulleted, a man ploughed his car into the bodies of three black women standing near a barricade. No one rushed to condemn that act of violence. There has been no statement of the arrest of that perpetrator. Instead, according to social media accounts, he was protected by police.

When the vice-chancellor was pelted with a bottle of water, condemnatory statements abounded. The assault of a white male body that holds a great deal of power at this institution was met with justified abhorrence. Yet no one knows the name of the black student run over, on purpose, by her fellow student.

The non-privileged bodies that take up space in ways deemed unacceptable are always-already violable in their disruption of space, are seen as fair game for violence, and often construed as “asking for it”. The woman who got raped while drunk? Asking for it. The sex worker assaulted on Main Road? What was she doing there at that time of night. The gay man who was beaten up? Maybe if he wasn’t so visibly gay. The vice-chancellor gets a water bottle to the face? Unthinkable!

To be clear, I am not advocating for or justifying violence against any person. Nobody should ever be subjected to violence, this is never acceptable.

So are the vastly different standards of outrage we reserve for harm inflicted on different types of bodies. On some bodies — the homeless, trans people, women, queers, children, sex workers, black bodies — the administration of violence is business as usual, the maintenance of a form of “peace and order” that allows privileged, normative bodies to inhabit space comfortably.

Our silence around the violence inflicted on these bodies, for merely occupying space in ways that challenge dominance, is abhorrent too.

Dr Barbara Boswell is based at the African Gender Institute at UCT and is a member of the Black Academic Caucus. She writes in her personal capacity.

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    • Doom

      Whose bodies matters? As your article clearly indicates, that question is fraught with difficulty, white bodies generally matter more than black bodies but all privileged bodies including black bodies, privileged black bodies matter more than unprivileged bodies.

    • divvie

      I find your article incredibly disingenuous and simplistic. So burning tires, disrupting traffic at campus and on the main road in Rondebosch is not violent? I would have thought that physically preventing innocent people, who had nothing to do with UCT, from going on their business would be classed as violent. Mobbing and disrupting meetings is not violent? Trespassing shouting, jumping on furniture at a senate meeting is not violence?