Politics and state force, the remix

2014-11-25 13:45

The repoliticisation of state force in the “Marikandla” era should give us cause for concern.

Two separate, but related, recent events have brought this trend into sharp focus.

In the same week that lawyers concluded their closing arguments at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, police breached the National Assembly, forcibly removing MPs from the House for refusing to retract a statement describing President Jacob Zuma as a “thief and a criminal”.

Politicised state violence is not new to South Africa. Apartheid would not have survived for as long as it did if it had not been for the intersection between political ideology and state force.

Yet this only enhances the tragedy since recent events reopen a painful chapter in South African history that many hoped had been closed.

For example, consider the evidence that emerged over two years at the Marikana commission. We now know that the viral images that emerged soon after the killings only account for half of the deaths that actually occurred on August 16 2012.

Thirteen minutes after those events, 17 mine workers were killed at a second scene, many of them shot in the back or the head at close range while, according to one witness, they were raising their hands in surrender.

Those who escaped death were made to crawl to a nearby police Nyala while being verbally abused. One worker testified to being told he was “lucky he wasn’t being burned”.

Denied medical assistance, miners were taken into custody with swollen faces, gunshot wounds and bloody limbs. Thereafter, allegations of torture in police custody emerged.

One striking miner was not so lucky – he bled to death at the feet of police who watched him squirm in silent agony at the first scene.

Senseless violence of this kind would be unbearable enough if it was simply the work of a few rogue policemen, but it goes much further than that.

The commission also heard that a complex web of political interests contributed to the police action on that day.

Moreover, we also know that political considerations relating to the interests of the ANC featured in the calculations of high-ranking police officials as they planned their strategy to “kill the strike”.

State violence is troubling enough, but the trouble doubles when it fuses with nefarious political interests that also happen to exert dominance over electoral politics.

This brings us to recent events in Parliament. Again, of great concern is not simply that police saw fit to intervene in a political dispute, but that their actions were sanctioned and initiated by the majority party in Parliament.

Can we seriously expect that if an ANC MP had made similar remarks to those that sparked the furore, the full might of the state would have been employed to ensure their retraction?

The worrying answer to this question further reveals the emerging confluence between a powerful political elite and the instruments of state force; a convergence of interests that presages disaster if left unchecked.

It also creates a kind of double impunity. First, the impunity of the politicians who “get away with murder” and, second, the impunity of police sent in to defend them.

The faster the web of impunity grows, the harder it becomes for the criminal justice system to keep up. For instance, we know how long it has taken for a universally acceptable verdict on the probity of Number 1.

Recent attempts to “reach a middle ground” in Parliament only postpone the problem.

The fact is that serious illegality cannot simply be overlooked in the interests of “parliamentary order” or “Marikana reconciliation”.

Only once those who instigated police action are brought to book in both cases can we truly suggest that the promises outlined in our Constitution are anything other than promises alone.

Mpofu-Walsh is a student pursuing an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford

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