Marikana: The politics of law and order in post-apartheid South Africa

Liberal colonial occupation and the massacre have never been far apart in history, writes Pillay.

Striking miners in South Africa
Mine workers are by and large "the product of a colonial encounter", says Pillay [AFP]

With their pangas and machetes mixed with ethnic regalia, the striking mine workers at Marikana have become spectacularised. It is a stark reminder that the mine worker, a modern subject of capitalism, in these parts of the world is also the product of a colonial encounter. 

Many of us are trying to make sense of the massacre at Marikana through the obvious dire economic conditions, wage rates and inequality that these workers face. We must however also try to make sense of it through the lineages of law, order and the new configurations of politics emerging in post-apartheid South Africa. 

The violence of modern South Africa, whether in its political or criminal forms and the way it is being responded to, reveals the effects of a post-apartheid state increasingly relying on law, order and administration, and less on the guiding anti-colonial and democratic idealism of its founding political and moral vision.  

A few years ago, when I was doing research on criminal violence at the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, we decided to visit Bogota in Colombia to learn more about the innovative policies that two successive mayors introduced there, which seemed to have effective and dramatic results in lowering crime rates. 

During the trip, we also visited Sao Paulo and Rio in Brazil. In Bogota, we met the former mayor, Antanas Mockus, and learnt about an approach which emphasised less force and punishment. 

In the Brazilian favelas, we witnessed the opposite – the militarisation of war on gangs which themselves act like military organisations. 

What we heard and saw in Bogota encouraged us to think differently about criminality and violence. Mayor Mockus, a former university president and philosophy professor, had argued that in countries of the South, like Colombia, the most effective and sustainable transformation required to reduce violence, would be to produce a self-regulating citizen who chose to act in a particular way not out of fear, but out of shame, or more precisely, social shaming. 

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Where Rio was relying on militarised policing, Bogota was hiring creative artists and drama students from local universities as key members of its crime fighting operations. What seemed like slightly eccentric and unrealistic ideas, turned out to be just the opposite, as reflected in declining levels of aggression and homicide during the periods in which these policies were allowed to come to maturity. 

Zero tolerance policing

We decided to invite the former mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, to visit South Africa and facilitated meetings between him and policymakers working on crime. In meetings in Cape Town and Johannesburg, his ideas were met with much enthusiasm and interest. But habits are difficult to change. 

It is therefore with alarm that one can track an increasing reliance on the punitive aspects of the law in order to alter practices deemed inappropriate to civic and communal life in post-apartheid South Africa. 

In the city of Cape Town where I live, where the Democratic Alliance is in power, the administration is drawing more and more on the discredited policy of zero tolerance policing which emerges from the United States. It is an approach widely associated with the criminalisation of racial minorities like African-Americans and Latinos, who make up the bulk of the offenders in US jails. 

Rather than criminalise a minority, when that kind of thinking is transferred to South Africa, we end up criminalising the majority. Mostly alarmingly, the Premier of the Western Cape renewed a call last heeded under the State of Emergency of the 1980s, for military troops to be sent into townships, this time to deal with gangsterism. 

We have to be concerned with the proliferation of punitive actions to transform social behaviour. Should these be the guiding ethos of a new form of citizenship we want to cultivate? Up to now, there has been great cynicism about the lack of capacity to implement the growing plethora of regulatory laws and administer them efficiently, which tended to ensure that their bark could never really become their bite, beyond certain geographical spaces in the city. Then came Marikana.

Whilst law is celebrated as the highest form of civilisation in some circles, we should also recall that the history of law is entwined with colonial conquest and rule, and complicates the legitimacy of certain legal traditions in most of the formerly colonised world. 

Law was not only an expression of the codification of order, but also the expression of the imposition of liberal conduct and of liberal paternalism. The rule of law and constitutionalism, scholar James Tully tell us, drawing on the Australian experience, is not a culturally neutral set of ideas, but is rather the hegemonic imposition of a set of norms which originate in colonial conquest and are imposed on subject populations in order to transform their behaviour to produce what we might call good modern subjects. 

We should recall that the early justifications of colonial rule were based on doing good for the native by, for example outlawing “barbaric practices” in India and Africa in order to civilise them. 

My point is not to celebrate these outlawed practices, but to point out that liberalism has historically relied on law to enact its paternalism on populations in order to transform their conduct into what is seen as the good subject and good citizen, who acts and thinks in a particular way. From the liberal vantage point, this is celebrated. 

In our present context, this liberal paternalism now seems to be running rampant as the only way in which political authority can transform our conduct. This leads to the proliferation of rules, not the proliferation of debate and dialogue or of engagements designed to transform through alternative modes of self-regulation. 

Post-apartheid state

If political authority only relies on the wagging finger, it quickly comes to rely too much on the wagging stick. When those populations upon whom rules are imposed start to find its paternalism offensive, authority slides into authoritarianism. 

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Liberal colonial occupation and the massacre have never been far apart in history. When subject populations resist the liberal gift they are supposed to express gratitude for, the response has been to reveal the ultimate authority that gives law its power: violence. 

In the constitutional order of post-apartheid South Africa, the grassroots mass has been transformed from being seen as a source of activism to being seen as a population to be transformed, as a target. The developmental state views the population through the lens of administration. It brings to bear experts who devise techniques and technical solutions. 

The post-apartheid state is producing the largest archive of policy documents drawn up by local and foreign consultants. We are in a cycle of plans and new plans. But as many will admit in the state, implementation of these plans is another story.   

Majoritarian rule has been interpreted by the state to mean rule on behalf of the majority not rule of the majority. Given the legacy of apartheid, most black South Africans – the majority which votes – are the same majority living in poverty and the target population of developmental upliftment. 

In other words, they are “the problem” to be solved, not the majority to be represented. What we are witnessing is a growing divide between majoritarianism and the popular. Understanding the majority as “the problem” has brought out the liberal paternalism of the state and the wagging finger. It is therefore losing control over the popular. 

The battle over the popular is now an open site of contention, where rival unions, expelled youth league leaders and new political leaders on the ground battle for hegemony with the traditional ruling party figures of the tripartite alliance – the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. 

When these populations start asserting themselves as they are doing now, they quickly shift from being considered targets of development to targets of repression. They are easily labelled and named: as impatient and ungrateful, automatons of external interference, “third forces”, counter-revolutionaries or political opportunists. 

Everything but citizens asserting legitimate political expression, simply because these are expressed in increasingly illiberal forms and repressed more often now with illiberal methods. Marikana is its most acute expression, and will henceforth be the symbolic name we give to event which revealed the disjuncture between law, politics and people in post-apartheid South Africa. 

The German political theorist, Hannah Arendt, was of the view that a turn to violence signalled the end of politics. For Arendt, politics is a process of agonistic engagement with contending ideas, and the moment one resorted to violence to do the work of politics, politics has vacated the building. 

A reliance on violence and the punitive aspects of law, as the only way in which we transform social conduct, signals a failure of the imagination and of political thinking. 

Are our political leaders, who can rightly claim to be the proud inheritors a radical tradition and of a liberal tradition, really be so bereft of their sensibilities to govern that they are resorting to violence to do the work of politics? 

Suren Pillay is a Senior Researcher and Acting Director at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He conducts research on political violence, law and citizenship.