Protests in response to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police or military - George Floyd in the United States, Collins Khosa in South Africa, Adama Traore in France - speak to a growing rage across the globe at continued white supremacy and the use of state violence to support it. As the case of South Africa demonstrates, such violence is to be found even in countries where Black people hold the levers of government and of the state more broadly.
When communities are confronted by both resilient structural violence and attacks on their bodies, violent responses will occur. This is especially evident right now in the US, where many of the protests have been characterised by violent action. The latter is too readily dismissed as the work of extremists or of criminal elements. As we have seen in South Africa during the democratic era, violent protest is often the result of a careful calculation by communities who have come to see that only such action elicits the desired response from the state. And we dare not forget the country’s tradition of armed struggle – in his speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela said the following:
"I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites."
The use of violence can be rational and carefully targeted as part of a strategy to counter structural and other forms of violence against Black lives. And, of course, it ought always to be so.
Protesters in the US are signalling that enough is enough. Black lives matter enough to warrant getting out in the streets and demanding an end to a system which creates the conditions for (and legitimises) violence against Black bodies. More than a thousand Black people die at the hands of police in the US every year. And mass incarceration, predictive policing, targeted surveillance and a host of other tools render Black lives more vulnerable than all others.
It is clear that in South Africa twenty-six years of democracy have not as yet ensured that Black lives matter as much as White lives. Collins Khosa, Andries Tatane, the Marikana miners – the list is long. The most recent Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) report indicated 201 deaths in police custody, 436 deaths as a result of police action, 217 reports of torture and 3 661 reports of assault by the police. The victims are almost always Black people. And we must also factor in the structural violence against Black lives constituted by patterns of poverty and inequality deeply rooted in our histories of colonialism and apartheid. As Thomas Piketty noted in the 2015 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture:
“if inequality is not addressed through peaceful means and peaceful democratic institutions, it’s always potentially a source of violence.”
Now is the time for sober assessment of a resilient White supremacy in our country, in the US and globally. We need to reckon with the fact that structural and other forms of violence will provoke violence. And we must face the reality that the ravages of COVID-19 will further entrench structural violence unless we fundamentally restructure our societies. It is time to apply our minds to this challenge. Black lives do matter.
For media enquiries, please contact the Spokesperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Luzuko Koti, at LuzukoK@NelsonMandela.org or on (+27) 082 994 0349.