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The Coligny Magistrate's Court (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)
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Coligny was always, it strongly seems, a racial bomb ready to explode. It finally has.
No single act of an alleged killing of a black teenager by two white men, in and of itself and inhumane as it is, would have otherwise caused the destructive reaction that South Africa saw the past week in Coligny.
An alleged act of killing a teenager, if isolated from other factors, would have just as deeply shocked an otherwise normal town or society. But it would simply have been interpreted as a criminal matter and the police, prosecutors and courts would have been left alone to deal with matter.
Naturally, no collective of community members unprovoked by previous unjust circumstance(s), would react to such an incident in the way some Coligny citizens are reacting.
Something has gone horribly wrong here, and it is a symbol of a semi-sick town, itself a symbol of a semi-sick South Africa.
Black Coligny citizens, in the main, are refusing to treat this death as a mere act of possible criminality. They don’t see it as possible suicide. For them it is not a possibly rare racially-motivated killing. For them it is not possible that the boy jumped off the van and died. Neither is it an act where the innocence of the two accused can be normally assumed until proven guilty as our Constitution dictates.
As citizens of South Africa we have experienced almost all types of violence. Yet no collective of citizens just wake up in a normal town and go on a rampage, just because one teenager was killed, even if on racially motivated grounds. Coligny is a product of some of our most critical failures as South Africans.
It is difficult to imagine that we would be seeing this level of destruction and hatred had we long truly heeded the historical cries for racial harmony between blacks and whites, even in farming communities. What Coligny-destroying mistrust would have been produced by this highest human achievement?
It is equally difficult to imagine that we would have seen this destruction of a town and its people, black and white, had we committed ourselves without fail to reasonable social equality, equal chances for upward personal mobility and success for everybody. Where everyone feels that they own their town, share a bond of social contract on equal footing with their fellow citizens and benefit from the social capital this produces, why would a normal town be destroyed? Why would the innocence of a citizen not be assumed?
But where you have inequality, daily frustrations and discrimination you are bound to have violence. The destructive scenes we’ve seen in Coligny therefore are, as such, not just produced by the alleged killing of the teenager, but also by the broader context under which it happened: Coligny itself, South Africa, and the world.
Apart from the glaring racial aspects to it, the Coligny we see today is a product of a combination of factors. It is a product of the fantastically mediocre political and economic management of our country of late, at all levels. It is a product of politicians who distract us from their critical failures to rebuild small towns and give hope, but easily resort to racial explanations.
Coligny is a product of the daily frustrations of hopelessness that we see in most of our protests as a consequence of social alienation and poor race and class relations. It is a product of social disharmony and mistrust produced by historical ‘miseducation’ about each other. It is a product of crime felt by all, whites and blacks. It is a product where white people feel they are victims of crime committed by blacks.
Moreover, it is a product of those racist videos where white men are seen stuffing a black man into a coffin; where white police officers in America are seen shooting black people; of endless videos on TV, YouTube and all over social media of white men beating up black people at garages and traffic lights. It is a product of the assumption that white men would get away with it because they have the best lawyers.
Long before the catastrophic events of Coligny, I was asked by a journalist for Daily Maverick to comment on racist postings on social media, their media reportage, and what they could do to South Africa. I said: "[They] have huge potential to critically impair South Africa’s racial harmony progress if they persist. The damage done to our country by these people is deep. No one knows which racial incident would be the final straw that could lead to catastrophe."
It does not have to be this way. We can all change and rebuild our country. We have the capacity. We just need the will. Or, we all become Coligny.
- Dr Musawenkosi Ndlovu is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town and Mandela Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
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