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Why the Zimmerman verdict matters in SA

Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old boy who walked to a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida, for a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. During what would be his final walk back to his father’s home, he came across neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who subsequently stalked him. This is believed to have led to an altercation during which Zimmerman shot the unarmed boy leading to his untimely death. Since there were no witnesses, no-one except the two — one of whom is dead — will ever know what exactly happened that night. But what we know for sure is that a weapon was used to kill an unarmed boy who was stalked for no other reason except that his skin colour led him to be seen as “a real suspicious guy”.

It took a public outcry to get Zimmerman charged, which led to a trial that saw the murder accused acquitted. Following the acquittal of Zimmerman there were comparisons made between the verdict of this trail and another that saw a black woman receive a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot at the ceiling while being attacked by her abusive husband.

For some, the Zimmerman trial is nothing more than another example of the absurdness of the US legal system. Unlike us they don’t use a sophisticated method, which sees learned scholars of law render judgement on these cases, but rely on laymen and women to do so. This verdict is however much more than that, it raises many questions about the ability of the law to ensure justice for black people.

In South Africa, where we use a more “sophisticated” system, we still see stiffer sentences given to perpetrators when the victim is white, as compared to when the victim is black. The legal system is essentially biased in favour of those who are wealthy, because this allows one to have the better legal representation — sometimes even representation that can afford independent forensic experts and the likes. From this it can be deduced that the law is biased in favour of white people because in the South African context, whites still have greater claim to wealth.

While some may rubbish my observations as perceptions or argue that it is unfair for me to compare cases as each case has its own merits, it is important to note that a fundamental principle in all of this is that not only should justice be done, but that justice is SEEN to be done.

The great injustice done against Trayvon Martin should serve as a reminder that like Andries Tatane, the miners slain at the Marikana massacre and the police officer killed by Bees Roux, amongst others, not only that the black body invites violence merely because it is black but also just how out of reach justice continues to be for us.

This goes beyond laws rooted in colonial times and the transformation of the judiciary, but requires the confrontation of globalised white supremacy, which continues to dehumanise black people by creating and sustaining systems that allow verdicts like that of the Zimmerman trial to happen.