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The making of a terrorist state

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks at the increasing incidents of violence in the country and examines the disappointing response by the police and the State in reacting to them. He argues that rather than just doing nothing in the face of violent crime, there is evidence that the State's and the police's inaction actually encourages further violence. He argues that civil society, and the Church, need to stand up and condemn not only the violence in society, but the State and police service's inaction as well.

What would you think if you opened your newspaper and read about a gang of men who ambushed a bus carrying civilians to work, and unprovoked, killed six of the commuters who jumped out?

Would we consider them to be: Mad? Psychopaths? Terrorists?

I suppose the latter would depend on whether you knew the intentions of the group that launched the attack, or if the group itself announced their aims.

South African history, particularly between 1960 and 1990, has given the term terrorism a distinct right-wing smell. The word has been stripped of its neutral sense and clothed in the intentions of those who terrorise.

Hence the need to take a step back and reflect on the commonly accepted definition. Loosely speaking, terrorism is any unlawful act, or threat of violence and intimidation, against civilians, the state or its main beneficiaries in pursuit of some political end.

As with many other terms from the social sciences, the definition is neither exhaustive nor undisputed.

Given the above, it would appear that South Africa is becoming a fertile ground for terrorist activities even though they are hardly called or recognised as such by law enforcement authorities and the state.

The killing of the six people in a bus (referred to above) is not a hypothetical case.

Earlier this month, six miners were burnt to death in Burgersfort, Limpopo after a bus they were travelling in was petrol bombed. Police and eyewitness accounts said two men boarded the bus, pretending to be fellow workers. They then suddenly threw flammable objects, believed to be petrol bombs at the passengers before dashing off into the night.

Twenty-eight other miners were wounded in the attack.

Police have arrested five men in relation to the attack. They have since appeared in the Mecklenburg Magistrates Court on charges of murder, malicious damage to property, and attempted murder. They have been remanded into custody.

On the same day as the Burgersfort attack, a wage dispute by truck drivers around the N3 in Mooi River (about 150km from Durban) that connects Johannesburg and Durban quickly turned into a violent marauding mob of looters.

Residents, including children, burnt down a truck belonging to a groceries chainstore group and helped themselves to its contents.

The incident meant that one of the busiest roads in South Africa, especially around Easter, ground to a standstill leaving kilometres of cars marooned in traffic.

In the Limpopo town of Vuwani, over 30 schools have been either torched or vandalised, public amenities destroyed, and thousands of learners made to miss considerable parts of their school year, all because residents oppose the government decision to merge their municipality with another close by.

The state has argued that this was important for economic efficiency.

Though police have often arrested protestors, there conviction rate has remained alarmingly low.

Late last year, SAPS Major-General Michael Mohlala blamed intimidation for the lack of a single prosecution over the past two years, despite 132 cases being opened and nearly 80 arrests having been made.

The now infamous call by President Cyril Ramaphosa (who was not president at the time) for police to exercise “concomitant action” against the striking Marikana mine workers probably best illustrates the dangerous intersection of what happens when private citizens feel they can take on the state without consequences and how the state tends to act if it believes its powers are eroded.

State violence almost always meets citizens’ violence with greater fury – even in instances when the state is the source of the primary violence.

It is a fact that by the time Ramaphosa called on the then police minister Nathi Mthethwa, ten people had already been killed in the days leading to the shooting including a mineworker, strikers, two Lonmin security guards and two policemen.

After the call, police fired on and killed 34 mineworkers – an incident infamously recorded as post-apartheid’s first mass killing by police officers.

More recently, police shot and killed seven men suspected to have been part of a gang that had attacked and killed five police officers and a retired soldier in Ngcobo, Eastern Cape.

Questions have been asked whether the police action was proportionate and whether the police had not killed innocent people. This after the police raided what it claimed was the gang’s hideout – a compound hosting members of a religious cult.

Both state and society seem not to have learnt lessons from the Marikana and Ngcobo cases. Nor even from the ample historical examples of the apartheid state's actions against the anti-apartheid activists.

The pattern that we see here is that indifference to what appears to be small acts of anti-state violence almost inevitably leads to greater, and potentially disproportionate, acts of violence by the state against non-state groups. As the Marikana and Ngcobo incidents illustrate, the democratic nature of the state is irrelevant to the state’s tendency to act brutally against those it deems to undermine its authority.

The stark choice for civil society, including the church, is that if it does not encourage the state to pay closer attention to what appears to be small acts of terrorism, if it does not arrest, try and jail those found guilty, then civil society will, sooner or later, simply have to condemn the state for acting in such a high-handed manner.

Image: Wikipedia

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.