The last month has been historically and politically significant for South Africa. The student protests have – and continue to – present a great opportunity for citizens to hold their government accountable. Although this social movement represents the potential of our politics to mature and become meaningful, this potential will be squandered if we do not pay close attention to the heavy-handed approach taken by government in response to these protests.
This protest, like the already-forgotten use of state violence against elected members of parliament in the past year, represents a great threat to South Africa’s potential. But the use of state force, and the story of a police force and government that values bullets over brains is not a new one. This is a common, defining characteristic of our history: authoritarianism and unchecked power have always been there – never addressed, and often supported by the public at large.
South Africans from a variety of backgrounds grow up in a world where deference to authority is the norm, and are able to recount a multitude of stories about our national obsession with authority. These are stories of schoolmarms and masters who have traded visionary leadership for gender-policing, strict rules and limiting the potential of pupils. Or stories of religious leaders who enforce crazy dogma at the cost of freedom. And if someone is lucky enough to have escaped the clutches of an overbearing school or church, they will run into a million other characters who will enforce made-up rules or threaten them with violence and conformity: an army of security guards patrolling private homes and businesses, rude bureaucrats who apply rules as they see fit, and perhaps employers who skirt around the law when it suits them.
It should come as no surprise then that South Africans – across all racial groupings and other divides – have expressed great support for the policemen filmed shooting a suspect on video. This defence of the indefensible could be blamed on citizens’ desperation in the face of crime, but the overwhelming popularity of the use of force (perhaps comparable to the strange disapproval of some South Africans at the Fees Must Fall movement?) points to a general public which is uncritical in its willingness to hand over power to the state and its apparatuses.
This uncritical willingness to cede power, and choose authority over individual rights and liberty has a longstanding history in our collective political tradition. The apartheid state cultivated various structures to control black people, whilst simultaneously enforcing a great respect for power and conformity amongst the white populace.
The great irony of our national obsession with authority and authoritarian practices, is how little this way of doing things has changed life for us. Police officers who think it’s acceptable to “shoot to kill” haven’t been reducing crime. Metro Police who illegally chase homeless people off the streets aren’t helping these homeless people in any way – or “preventing” homelessness. Teachers and church leaders who spend their days policing our actions aren’t creating a society in their own image.
Deference to authority thus appears to be nothing more than a mask for mediocrity and incompetence. Having little to offer the world, some people and the institutions they represent have cemented themselves by demanding respect, creating rules, failing to apply already-existing rules correctly, and skirting accountability – at any cost.
But even where capable people – and there are millions of capable citizens who want to transform South Africa – occupy positions of power in a society of blind respect and deference to authority, there exists the dangerous temptation to act before thinking. Where people in power – such as the SAPS – exercise authority without thinking, things can escalate very quickly – as was observed at the student march on Parliament.
What is at stake in the fight against our national obsession with authority is not merely a childhood without fun or the ability to ask uncomfortable questions; a greater threat exists in allowing the state, police, our institutions and civil servants to push us around when it suits them. The ripple effect of tolerating hundreds of years of respect for power(ful men) is the cultivation of a society that doesn’t value the lives and rights of free citizens – in the police interviewing room, the classroom, and elsewhere.
The heavy-handed assault on student protestors and police suspects is another reminder that people in authority are out of control, and need to be reined in by citizens. Only a tolerant society that respects the rights of free citizens has the potential to change. We cannot even begin to imagine a different South Africa if we do not challenge our nation’s authoritarian tilt.