Mpumelelo Mkhabela | 'No One To Blame' has returned to South Africa

Protesters confront police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 2016. The protests were in the name of the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer.
Protesters confront police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 2016. The protests were in the name of the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The theme of ‘No One To Blame’ following the killing of Steve Biko is being seen again in South Africa with the death of Collins Khosa, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has incorrectly compared the killing of George Floyd in the US in 2020 to Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in South Africa in 1977.  

It was, to put it respectfully, the stretching of the point beyond elastic limits on the part of the president.

At the launch of the ANC's "Black Friday" initiative last week, to commemorate victims of racism and law enforcement brutality, Ramaphosa suggested there were similarities.

It is true that Floyd and Biko were killed by white police officers. Yes, black people in America and South Africa continue to suffer from the legacy of legalised inequality and racism.

READ | Ramaphosa 'regrets' Collins Khosa's death

This is where the similarities end.

The differences are, however, profound. Biko was killed by white police officers while in detention without trial during apartheid under the veil of secrecy. Floyd was murdered in supposedly "free" America in broad daylight. 

Biko's murder was not only triggered by his race - being black was of course criminalised in many ways - but primarily because he advocated for Black Consciousness.

The philosophy was considered dangerous by the apartheid regime because it preached the realisation of self-worth of black people. This was in sharp contrast to the justification for apartheid.

In the age of globalised social media networks that make it possible for injustices to be instantaneously exposed, and thus offend sensibilities of those who haven’t lost their humanity, Floyd's murder is having ramifications in the United States and around the world.

ADRIAAN BASSON | If black lives matter to the ANC, what about Collins Khosa's death?

As was the norm at the height of apartheid, the manner of Biko’s murder was concealed by the security forces. You can only imagine the reaction had there been social media in 1977.

The absence of social media networks notwithstanding, only a few in the world at that time would have been fooled by the government's false claims: first, that Biko had died from a hunger strike and later that he had banged himself against the wall.

Damn lies were told in those days to explain away the killing in detention of many freedom fighters: someone was said to have slipped on wet floor, they fell from a chair, they committed suicide, and so on.

In the case of Biko, the callous Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger went on to say: "I have also felt like banging my head against a brick wall many times, but realising now, with the Biko autopsy, that may be fatal, I haven’t done it."

As was typical, a lengthy inquest into Biko's death revealed its gruesomeness, but the presiding magistrate chose to hear the falsified version of the security personnel.

George Bizos, one of Biko's family lawyers recorded that after the inquest, the magistrate Marthinus Prins delivered the finding in three minutes. "Available evidence does not prove that the death was brought about by any act or omission involving or amounting to an offence on the part of any person," he ruled.  "That completes this inquest."

It was not always possible to conceal the truth. Two decades later a lot of what happened to Biko was laid bare at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bizos has chronicled the denials of complicity in human rights violations and the deaths of many freedom fighters at the hands of security forces in his appropriately titled book "No One to Blame?"

This theme - no one to blame - has returned to South Africa in 2020. If Ramaphosa wanted to make comparisons with Biko, he needed to look not far across the Atlantic Ocean, but closer here at home across the Jukskei River. This is where Collins Khosa was killed.  

To be fair, the president has since condemned the killing and promised the government would get to the bottom of it. Sadly, he has not condemned the manner in which the people who report to him have handled the matter. This is the nub of the issue. 

The only condemnation South Africans will appreciate is the dismissal and prosecution of those who gave instructions and those who took us back to the Biko murder.

To be sure, there are no similarities between the individuals Khosa and Biko. Khosa was killed under the democratic dispensation in which human dignity and the right to life is enshrined in the Constitution. Those who lived in Biko's time could only have hoped for such a dispensation where the rule of law and human rights are sacrosanct.

READ | 'Losing faith in the law' - Alexandra residents react to Collins Khosa saga

Yet, the behavior of the government following Khosa's murder makes it difficult to resist comparison with those day when “No One to Blame” was the mantra. This is where the similarities have painfully occurred and must be cured.

No doubt, Judge Hans Fabricius had this in mind when he condemned the government's lack of historical perspective when it suggested it was not the court’s place to deal with the Khosa case.

The Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has embarrassingly flip-flopped on what actually transpired.  

(Lest we forget, she held the same portfolio when the Guptas invaded the military base with their civilian aircraft. Strangely, there was no one to blame for it.)

While the South African National Defence Force Board of Inquiry acknowledges Khosa suffered injuries, it takes the obfuscation script from apartheid when it concludes that soldiers were not responsible for his death.

Whoever wrote the report deserves the title of being the modern-day Marthinus Prins. It's a typical "No One to Blame" scenario. The difference is that the people in authority now are black.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the police watchdog, which has no jurisdiction on soldiers, has tried to restore sanity with a report that recommends disciplinary action against police officers and members of the Johannesburg Metro Police who were present when Khosa was assaulted.

It's an important step towards breaking the cruelty of "No One to Blame".

There must be someone or people to blame - to be accountable. Only if Biko and other freedom fighters didn’t die in vain.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a former parliamentary correspondent, editor of Sowetan and a political analyst. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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