Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa

von Holdt, Karl., Langa, Malose., Malopo, Sepetla., Mogapi, Nomfundo., Ngubeni, Kindiza., Dlamini, Jacob., and Kirsten, Adèle.  2011. The smoke that calls: Insurgent citizenship and the struggle for a place in the new South Africa.  Centre for the Study of Violence and Society, Work and Development Institute

The overall comparative analysis, as well as the insights of the more detailed site case studies, is explored in the body of this report. Here, we would like to draw attention only to four key observations that strike us when we consider the report as a whole.

The first is the critical role played by the police in collective violence—a peculiar combination of absence and unnecessary and provocative violence. Regarding their absence, the initial role of the police in our studies of xenophobic violence—as in studies by others—was the lack of a serious effort on their part to prevent attacks or protect foreign nationals in the early stages of violence. They seemed only to move into action after the first fury of mob attacks, and then only in tandem with local organisations such as ANC branches or CPFs. A similar absence is registered in, at least, one of the community protest episodes, when the local police told councillors whose houses were attacked and destroyed that it was not their job to protect them.

On the other hand, our studies of community protests show that police actions escalated confrontation and tension which rapidly took the form of running street battles between protesters and police officers. There was widespread condemnation in communities of provocative violence against crowds of protesters on the part of police. Even more troubling were the incidents of random assault and allegations of torture against suspected protest leaders and their families in some of the communities—reports and allegations that have been repeated in more recent protests, such as those at Ermelo and Ficksburg where protest leader Andries Tatane died at the hands of the police.
The police are, therefore, critically important protagonists in collective violence, both when they are absent from scenes of mass violence, and when they themselves engage in collective violence against protesting communities.

Second, the counterpart to the police as protagonists is the role of the youth, mostly young men but including young women, in collective violence, both in spearheading xenophobic attacks as well as engaging in battles with the police and destroying public property during community protests. This is not a new observation, but it is nonetheless an important one. Many of those who participate in the violence are unemployed, live in poverty, and see no prospect of a change in these circumstances. Theirs, they feel, is a half-life, as they are unable to participate as full citizens in the economy and society. Impoverished young men, in particular, experience this as the undermining of their masculinity as they are unable to establish families. Protest provides them with an opportunity to exert their masculinity through violence and to experience themselves as representing the community and fighting on its behalf. Unless widescale strategies for social and economic inclusion address this issue, social fragmentation and violence is likely to continue.

A third observation concerns the interface between sociology and psychology. In many ways these two disciplines are difficult to bring together because of the contrasting questions they ask and their divergent narratives. However, concepts of ‘collective trauma’ explored in the chapter by Nomfundo Mogapi seem to provide a way of addressing this disjunction and finding common ground. This is a new field—certainly to us—and holds out promise for future research and analysis that enables us to explore this interface at a deeper level.

Finally, we want to draw attention to the significance of the Bokfontein study. While most of the studies focus their attention on the ugliest dimensions of local politics and the competition for resources, Bokfontein provides a reminder of what is possible in South Africa. The Community Work Programme (CWP) enabled a very traumatised and marginalised community to address both the collective trauma and its supporting narratives, and imagine a different future for themselves and at the same time provided avenues for young people to focus their energies on participating in a collective effort to transform their communities. One of the results was the end of intra-community violence and the deliberate rejection of xenophobic violence—achieved, it must be said, without any police action at all. After the immersion in the perversity and desperation of much human endeavour in our society, it was profoundly inspiring for our research team to encounter this place of hope with its combination of visionary and practical agency. Truly, the nations will be amazed!