Beware the slide into a police state

Police states do not announce themselves like melodramatic thunder and lightning after a hot summer’s day on the Highveld. Police states creep up on you slowly.
That means we should look out for the signs of violence becoming synonymous with state power over time, and a rule-bound society systematically becoming less governed by lofty democratic principles such as the rule of law.

On Tuesday there was a thuggish group outside the home of South African Communist Party (SACP) second deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila, chanting: “Hands off Zuma!” A charge has reportedly been laid against them. The intimidation came a day after Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema — who seems to be a reliable political sangoma nowadays — warned ominously that Mapaila’s life might be in danger, especially since, unlike other senior SACP leaders, he is not in government and is therefore freer to speak out against state capture.

Mapaila apparently recognised some of these thugs as his former comrades in the fight against the evil edifice that was apartheid. This means former liberation movement members are fighting each other in a neocolonial battle to gain access to state power and, through that ascension to power, gain access to state resources.

This particular incident comes only a few months after Mapaila had a gun brandished in his direction in what the SACP regarded as an assassination attempt.

The ugly reality, however, is that political violence has subsided since 1994 but has not been eliminated. At local government level and in the provinces away from the glare of the mainstream media, many officials have been killed in battles to gain access to or to hold on to positions. These stories only grab our attention as a nation if individuals with a national profile are implicated, threatened or killed.

Add to these developments the violent clampdown on social movements such as Abahlali baseMjo-ndolo and a scary picture of the habitual use of violence to neutralise active citizens emerges. A baby died last week in a police clampdown on Abahlali protesters in what the movement described as “a brutal police attack”.

The rights of citizens and social movements to protest are routinely compromised by the state security apparatus. Some people in our democracy are treated as subjects of state power rather than as citizens with inherent dignity, let alone as citizens who have civil and political rights.

All of this, in turn, is compounded by the leadership crisis in the police and in the justice system more generally. It means that we have a lethal combination of a politicised criminal justice system filled with competent but poorly supported cops, many incompetent cops, and some political leaders who use the security cluster for political ends.

It is bad enough that our economy is not growing. That alone is a security risk. Poor, hungry and desperate citizens oxygenate protests against all sources of power.

Unfortunately, we cannot only pay attention to the broken economic system. If only economic insecurity was the only major problem we had. But that is not the case.

There is a more existential threat we face when we cannot trust the state to keep us safe and when we cannot trust an incumbent government not to abuse its control of crime intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

This is where vigilance matters. Many of us are so desperate to drive a wedge between the apartheid state and our democratic state — to keep the naysayers at bay — that we refuse to entertain any continuities while passionately pointing out the discontinuities.

The levels of deliberate anti-black systemic racism and oppression of the apartheid state were unique. That is why apartheid was rightly declared a crime against humanity. It is why I, like many South Africans, do not entertain hasty comparisons between now and life pre-1994.

But the apartheid state is also a very useful historical case study in how police states operate.

We aren’t experiencing — yet — anything like the inherently violent apartheid state. But our democratically elected government inherited a police state and that makes it susceptible to the immoral attractions of using violence as a mode of repressing citizens. We have, collectively, only recently experienced state violence. State violence runs in our blood.

What happened in 1994 was not a clean break from the violent apartheid state. How could it be? Many of the individuals who worked for the apartheid state are still employed by the state. Many have not changed their modus operandi. They simply have new puppet masters.

This is where the erosion of respect for the rights-based new society we imagined in our Constitution becomes a menace we must push back against.

It is not just old, white anti-democratic colonialists who are capable of hating and hurting black people. Democratically elected black neocolonialists are also capable of hating and hurting black people. Yesterday’s liberation movement doesn’t always turn out to be today’s caring, responsive postcolonial government.

The current ANC government isn’t what it used to be. We, in turn, as citizens, need to be vigilant as the ANC increasingly mimics the habits of those it fought against just the other day.



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