On March 1 we watched in disbelief and horror as a young Mozambican man, Mido Macia, was forcibly handcuffed to the back of a police van and dragged behind the vehicle as he cried out for them to stop. When the car eventually arrived at the police station eyewitnesses say he was further beaten by the police officers. A few hours later he was found dead in his cell.
As horrific as this spectacle was, can we really feign surprise at having witnessed yet another black man being brutalised by South African police officers in full view of the public? Were we even that surprised when he was found dead in his cell?
How surprised could we possibly be after witnessing, on national television, 34 black men being killed in the space of a few minutes in what has become known as the Marikana massacre.
How could we possibly be surprised when in April 2011 we watched, again on public television, an unarmed and defenceless Andries Tatane being beaten by police and shot in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.
How do we begin to express surprise when we have already read of an unarmed teenage boy, Thato Mokoka, from Soweto, being shot seven times by a policeman in his home in full view of his family?
And each time the killing of yet another black male occurs there is somewhat of an uproar from our newspaper reading, news watching, social media savvy society.
Some racist commentators have gone as far as to write that it is no surprise that black men are killing each other because after all, they (black men) are predisposed towards irrational and barbaric behaviour.
But let us not forget the many headlines concerning black men who have been beaten to death, thrown to lions, shot like animals at border posts, and dragged at the back of bakkies by enraged white men.
The black male body, particularly if poor, is the body that we witness being brutalised the most in public and this spectacle of brutality throws up uncomfortable similarities to the public lynchings that happened in the days of slavery in the United States. It also is a harrowing reminder of the subjugation of black men in the colonial days. In these lynchings and beatings it is recorded that crazed and excited white folk bayed for the blood of the demonised black man and went as far as to jostle and wrestle to get souvenirs in the form of body parts from the broken, castrated and hung black male body.
Nowadays, in our so-called post-colonial, post -slavery society, the middle-class public muster up enough outrage for a few blogs and Facebook statuses speaking about how heart sore, helpless, outraged or numbed they are by these acts of male savagery. When it is a white male who has killed a black male and gotten off with a fine or a short sentence, there are a few days of reflection about the privileged status the angry white male still retains in our society. If it is black men killing black men there is about two weeks of outrage about these uneducated miscreants let loose on our society with guns. This is often coupled with some sort of common sense analysis suggesting that there are no “racist” killings in South Africa, because after all, black men are killing each other.
But in all this hot-air outrage the reality of how many black men are dying at the hands of the state, at the hands of other black men and at the hands of angry white men, seems to be glossed over. Indeed there is a lack of any in-depth questioning about why this is and what exactly is playing itself out in this awful truth.
I don’t see how we can continue to ignore the obvious, as uncomfortable as this may be.
The disenfranchised black man is under siege. He is under siege by the economically privileged male. He is under siege by the enraged white patriarch who feels his position of power has been usurped. He is under siege by the elitist black male who could not give a shit about him. He is under siege from middle-class blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds, all of who have their own reasons and methods of demonising him.
The black man is under siege by the state, by the police force, by economic policy, by global trends, by history, by contemporary and historical stereotypes.
All this is evidenced in how the black male, and more particularly, the black male perpetrator is portrayed as dehumanised in our media. He is portrayed as having no psychology, no emotion, no reason, no compassion and no morals. When last did you read about the emotional inner life of a black male perpetrator such as the smorgasbord of complex emotions and humaneness that we were dished up in the Oscar Pistorius case?
Do poor black men even cry?
Apparently the majority of black South African men are just a violent bunch for no particular reason — I’ve heard this said at dinner parties where educated folk sit around discussing the state of the nation.
It is clear that society at large wants nothing to do with the state of the disenfranchised black male psyche — though it threatens them — though the crisis of black masculinity is the very thing in our society that is unresolved and is thus a ticking time bomb.
The majority of black men remain unemployed. They remain subjugated. There is no outlet to experience masculine prowess or playfulness in poor communities. In such desperate situations people turn on each other, no matter what their race. They also turn on women and children.
That the police officers who are perpetrating much of the state-funded violence against the black male body are also black men, is indicative that unconscious internalisation and acceptance of the historical white male patriarchal standards remains rife in the psyche of those who have replaced the apartheid regime. After all, for more than 350 years, manhood in South Africa was defined by the ability of one race of men to oppress and brutalise another. This was done by stripping black men of their traditional role in the family and reducing them to a wretched and exploited work force. It was also done by using brute force, physical threat and restraint — and by claiming ownership of their women’s bodies and enslaving their children.
As writer Gwen Bergner indicates in her book Myths of Masculinity: ”For the black male, the connection between masculinity and power is represented by white male patriarchy.” Bergner maintains that “the white male is over-determined as an oedipal father; he is the agent of a racist social order prohibiting black males not only from satisfying sexual desire, but from achieving basic autonomy, normative masculinity, and self-determination”.
In many ways this still plays out today in South Africa as white men retain their hold on the capital of this country and thus usurp the majority of black men of the ability to earn, to marry, to gain the respect of women and to feel a healthy libidinous drive. On top of this, black men are witness to their own subjugation (on television) when they make any sort of attempt to assert their rights or demand service delivery and wage increases.
There is no doubt that the black male has become the least valued and most violated body in the modern public eye. And this is not to forget the colonial history of rape and exploitation that the black female body has been subject to, often outside of the public eye. There is no doubt that it is still the women who remain the victims of this horrible social malady of poverty and disenfranchisement as many (not all) men turn their rage and feelings of worthlessness and frustration onto them.
If the black male body is so expendable, so exploitable, so undervalued then how is the black male going to value and cherish the bodies of the women around him? And the more society strips the disenfranchised black male of his value the more the psychological repercussions are felt throughout society.
This lack of valuing fellow human beings plays itself out in various ways.
Why is it, for example, that there is more outrage about the poaching of rhino from the white middle class than there is about the snuff movies we see regularly, in which black men are killed in full view of the public? We need to acknowledge that the value placed on the black male body is less than that of a rhino because society sees the black male as dangerous, promiscuous, savage and expendable.
Until we reflect and act upon our own complicity in this social construction we will remain afraid of black men. We will have nightmares that we too will become the victims of the collective black male rage. We will insert the constructed stereotype of the black male bogeyman right into the centre of our own psyches
Black male rage, (like its counterpart, white male rage) is not a natural phenomenon. It is a societal problem. It is about the need for job security. It is about agency. It is about access to infrastructure and being able to look after family. It is about being acknowledged as a human being worthy of respect.
While our country remains in the grip of profit-driven, white, male ownership and the elitist black ”gentlemen’s club” — who exploit their fellow black men in an oedipal display of imbibed white patriarchy and subjugation — black men in general will never be given the chance to recoup their sense of agency and dignity. They will remain trapped in a negative construct, still reeling from the 350 years of enslavement imposed upon their forefathers.
The witnessing of male subjugation is passed down from generation to generation and the impact on the male psyche is deeply damaging. That nothing has changed for the majority of black men in South Africa 20 years into independence has created widespread frustration, depression, anger and rage. This is often turned onto the women and children in this post-apocalyptic landscape of neo-colonialist destruction. It often finds its expression in crime and xenophobia and other social ills. Until we deal with the root cause of these social ills we will continue to see the black male body being brutalised, oppressed, restrained and killed in public. The legacy of trauma will continue to be passed down from grandfather to father and to son. That legacy will continue to make victims of other people.
That there are so many black men who remain sane and non-violent under these conditions is a phenomenon that is worthy of acknowledgment. Yet it is the least acknowledged aspect of the disenfranchised black male psyche.
Our society has to recognise its role in this creation of the “demonised” black male. It has to recognise that black men, like all humans, are not inherently bad, enraged or out of control rapists — as often depicted. The working class black male has been dealt a raw blow in South Africa. The slave wage paid to the working black man makes life untenable and is emasculating as they are denied the chance to look after their families. Those who are unemployed are expendable — thrown to the outskirts of society with no hope of gaining employment in the current economic climate.
It is time to start recognising the reality of disenfranchisement. It is time to stop blaming and alienating the poor and to start to acknowledge that until we have a situation that offers equality for all nothing will change for anyone in South Africa. People need jobs, they need housing, they need a fighting chance to survive in a dignified life.
All struggles in our country need to begin with the struggle for social justice and services for all. It is the denial of access to these basic rights that is indeed the root cause of most societal ills.
The struggle should also include demanding the cessation of the wanton killing of black men in our public sphere.