OPINION: After Collins Khosa and George Floyd – learning how to breathe again

The artist Celos paints a mural in Downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
The artist Celos paints a mural in Downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Collins Khosa’s death may not be the moment that creates the energy that we see sweeping across America, but it should be, writes Rekgotsofetse Chikane. 

For every breath that leaves our lips, we are reminded that we are alive and that we exist, that we mean something to someone, that we are of importance; if not to someone else, then to ourselves. 

Our every breath is a gentle reminder that we are more than the sum of our flesh and bone, but something more.  Every breath we take is precious and should never be taken away from us as the cost of maintaining a system that represses.

To be denied the opportunity to “breathe” is to deny a person the right to be human. It is because of the above that I believe that pondering the liberation of black people, is not merely a momentary inclination towards believing and hoping for a different world. Or a reimagining of a world into one that is free from subjugation. 

No. To ponder on the liberation of black people the world over, is to evocate one’s own visceral and desperate need to learn how to breathe again. But to learn how to breathe again requires you to unlearn accepting life in a world where the arbitrary killings and death of our most marginalised is normalised because it fits the narrative and logic of our social and economic system.

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The death of Collins Khosa at the hands of those meant to serve and protect him is not the result of the ‘over-enthusiasm’ of SAPS or the SANDF during a lockdown as the President has suggested, but rather the result of the amplification of South Africa’s deep and structural inequalities caused by our national lockdown. 

Though I believe that the lockdown was a necessary tool to combat and prevent the potential catastrophe that COVID-19 would have inflicted on our country, its imposition has showcased that the livelihoods and breath (or lack thereof) of the majority of South African’s who live on the margins of their society, mean less than the minority who live within the economic and political comforts of its centre. 

The lockdown has, for whatever reason, further solidified an already powerful belief in South Africa, that we will tolerate an acceptable level of human loss and suffering, to maintain and protect the status quo.

However, we are not unique in this regard. To ponder the liberation of black people must be collective in its purpose. The liberation of African Americans is a necessary and essential step in the liberation of all those marginalised across the world. 

Therefore, to ponder liberation requires you to see this liberation as something that exists beyond our borders or forms of nationalism, which is why it is easy to link what happened to Collins Khosa to the death of George Floyd. 

Both men, for differing reasons, died in a world that failed to protect them. In the case of Floyd, his death has become yet another rallying cry for African American’s to seek reform within their justice system. A clarion call that has seemingly crossed racial divides in a country notoriously known for these ongoing structural divisions. 

His unnecessary death has reminded the consciousness of the USA of the lost lives of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and Freddie Gray Jr. All of whom lost their lives at the hands of a systemically corrupt police force. 

The burning of cities across the United States of America has almost become cathartic for the nation because it offers so many across that country the opportunity to feel like they can breathe again.

Whether this moment and these deaths can create the requisite energy required to create systemic change in that country is debatable, and one can only offer a guess on how it will resolve itself.

But for South Africa, the answer seems to be no. 

The death of Khosa has become part of our country’s logic. His death will be just another marker of the ‘necessary cost’ of a national lockdown. Our government, which has curried political favour throughout this lockdown due to the political charm of our President, has successfully lulled us all into a belief that the social protections that never existed before the lockdown have magically been created during the lockdown. 

That somehow we have become a nation that genuinely cares for the majority of South Africa who go through the daily suffering of gender-based violence, inequality, unemployment and poverty. We have been lulled into believing that because we were able to get a better handle of the pandemic than most other countries, that we somehow brushed over the intrinsic injustices present in our society.  

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We have successfully been lulled into a belief that the deaths of the most marginalised of our society, by our military and police force, is an acceptable and justifiable cost under the conditions of a lockdown. A cost that is deemed acceptable because of the incessant need and desire for South Africa to reopen its economy under the same rules that created the inequalities that the lockdown has simply exacerbated. 

Khosa’s death may not be the moment that creates the energy that we see sweeping across America. Still, it will be a reminder of our complicity in maintaining the status quo of our nation. It will be yet another blemish on our record to sit alongside the many others such as Marikana, Life Esidemeni and Michael Komape.

However, if I am wrong, which I hope I am, then let Khosa’s death spark the fire that pushes us to defy the status quo of our country. His death should leave us with the belief that we can use the crisis created by COVID-19 and the national lockdown as the justification for a reconfiguring of our country. A rehauling of a system that kills to maintain the façade of equality.  

I hope his death teaches us how to breathe again. For all our sakes.

Rekgotsofetse Chikane is the author of Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation: The Politics Behind #mustfall Movements. He has a Masters from Oxford University and is a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance. 

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