The curious case of the state’s neglect

2014-02-05 10:00

What do you do – as a government whose service motto is “we belong, we care, we serve” – when people tell you their homes have no water or toilets, or that they don’t have land or adequate housing at all?

You call the police.

But before you do, you first need to negate their experiences. You need to negate the everyday structural violence they face from being denied these basics – these essentials for staying alive, let alone living – by citing where else you’ve provided the basics.

You count out the many millions of houses you’ve built for other people, the land claims you’ve settled for other dispossessed people and the growing percentages of other people with access to the basics. You trumpet these achievements so much that purveyors of opinion surreptitiously give you credit for these things before they criticise your failings, because they won’t be taken seriously otherwise.

That none of it is of any comfort to the people before you who say they are without the basics is irrelevant, because you aren’t addressing them anyway.

This is an act of managing public perceptions and the people protesting aren’t your public. Your real public, the one you are really addressing, the one privileged enough with real and social capital to hurt you if they care to, is too comfortable and self-interested to notice what you’re going to do next.

In your act of managing public perceptions, you’re going to be playing the role of a caring government while, at the same time, covertly typecasting those protesting for the basics as thoughtless, impatient and violent louts.

Given all that government is doing and has done, you say, it’s quite unreasonable for people to protest without having the decency or respect for the law to ask for permission to protest.

Playing into your audience’s fetish for a narrow, legalistic form of law and order, you ask: Why, given the government’s long list of achievements, would people become so angry that they’d barricade the streets with burning tyres?

The protests are illegal and the protesters are violent, you say. Then you send in the cops.

But the police – undertrained, underpaid and facing bodily harm daily – are heavily armed with shotguns loaded with the wrong ammunition. So protesters die.

But fear not, there are ways to talk around this, too.

You remind your public that it was a violent protest and that the police were only trying to restore order and uphold the rule of law.

You dispatch the police minister and his spin guy to TV and radio stations to issue the very reasonable reminder that the management of the police service are not responsible for building or fixing water pumps and pipes, installing toilets or building houses.

So blaming them for the protests, or the deaths through police action during the protests, is nonsensical.

You’re now giving a masterclass in doublespeak because, at the same time, the minister responsible for water supply is at the funerals for the dead protesters. Asked why people have no water, she says it’s because black communities have come into towns in increasing numbers and have overloaded the systems.

Government is working hard to ensure everyone has water, she says, even though these black communities keep growing and overloading the aging infrastructure.

That’s three layers of blame you’ve heaped on the protesters: 1)?The protests are illegal, 2) The protesters are violent, and 3) They keep coming into towns, breeding and overloading the infrastructure.

Take a bow, but don’t revel in it too much. The glory is not yours alone. It may have taken chutzpah to even attempt this risky oratory gambit, but it required your public’s willingness to suspend its disbelief for you to pull it off.

They must have wanted you to get away with it.

But just in case there may be some still questioning how much you care, you demand letters of resignation from a few senior local government officials, including a mayor.

And you investigate and suspend some of the police officers who used the wrong ammunition, yet insist that the training you provided them was adequate.

The suspended police officers, also victims of your caring ways, were a part of your victim-centred criminal justice system. So it’s a good thing you remembered to negate the fact that the protesters they killed were themselves victims of violence – a structural violence – otherwise you’d have to suspend, arrest and prosecute yourself too.

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