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Why are we outraged by the burning of books?

The outrage over threats to burn Louis Myburgh’s corruption-exposing book pretends South Africa has an acceptable culture of protest, concludes Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

The storming of a bookshop in Sandton, Johannesburg and the tearing of Peter-Louis Myburgh’s new book — as well as the subsequent threats for its public burning —has rightly excited feelings in South Africa.

For one thing, the book, Gangster State, being an exposé of the alleged criminal behaviour of the South African governing party’s secretary-general Ace Magashule, suggests just how the country has become an effective mafia state.

With the ANC S-G being such a powerful position in the party, and by extension in the country, the book is an important contribution to the democratic project that started 25 years ago when Nelson Mandela was elected state president.

In that regard both the publishing and the reaction to the book, say much about the nature of the state we have become in the last quarter of a century. 

The storming of the bookshop and the open invitation to ANC (or Magashule) supporters to attend the scheduled burning of the book, has seen many invoke the famous quote by the 19th century German essayist, journalist and poet, Heinrich Heine. “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”

Heine’s quote is much loved for its chilling prescience. After all, the German government moved from burning its opponents’ books to gassing millions.

That said, the quote is a little ahistorical within the South African context. South Africa does not need to look to the future for the prospect of burning people or books. It need, only, look at its past and present.

It started in the 1980s with the anti-apartheid movement where those deemed to be agents of the apartheid government were publicly burned – usually with a petrol-doused tyre around their neck, hence the callous reference assigned to this sort of killing: “being necklaced”.

As many become disillusioned with the pace of development and the “better life for all” promised in 1994, service delivery protests have increased. Whereas the South African Constitution allows for public protest, these have increasingly become violent. 

In fact, “service delivery protest” has become shorthand, for alerting others to avoid a particular area because of the real risk of damage to their property.

For many South Africans, service delivery invokes images of tyres burning in the streets and communities enforcing shut-downs, blocking movements in or out of that community.

Despite the law allowing for protest and citizens having the prerogative to peacefully change governments they do not approve of, South Africa has a disturbingly high tendency of choosing violence, particularly fire, to make a political point.

A report by Municipal IQ, a web-based data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of all of South Africa’s 257 municipalities, found that “2018 had already eclipsed previous annual records for service delivery by the end of September…tallying 24% more protests than the previous 2014 record-holder. 

“Between 2004 and 2018, Gauteng has tended to be the major site for service delivery protests — on average accounting for 24% of protests over this period, and reaching 34% in 2017”. 

While the report does not say how many of these protests were violent, there is a general perception that such protests are more likely to turn violent than not.

Universities too have become sites of violent protests. In 2016, students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal infamously burned the law library, destroying some rare copies of historical law reports.

An article by online platform BusinessTech in August 2018, quoted the Department of Higher Education, saying that by then, the cost of damages to university amenities was estimated R787 million — up significantly from the last reported figure, which was around R600 million.

“The damages reported by the universities stood at R492 million in 2015‚ R238 million in 2016 and R57 million in 2017, the department noted.”

Another sector of the South African society that practically lives with the expectation of public violence is the rail industry.

In January this year, Transport Minister Blade Nzimande told Parliament that 214 trains had been burned in suspected arson attacks in South Africa in the past three years.

Nzimande said 2016 had been a particularly bad year with 69 coaches burnt, compared with 65 in 2018 and 41 in 2017.

Official police statistics showed that 10,589 cases of public violence had been reported to the various police precincts. This number was 1,497 in 2009.

It is hardly news anymore to hear that a community, usually of working class, has taken the law in its hands and ‘convicted’ and ‘sentenced’ a ‘criminal’ to death. 

Even more startling is that in a case of mob justice or public violence arrests, communities are not shy to threaten more public violence if those arrested are not released.

It would be unfair to create the impression that the state has no role in the violent nature of our society and only communities are to be blamed.

Communities tend to take the law into their own hands because they have lost faith in the justice system, to deliver safety, security and justice.

On the other hand, the state seems to have no qualms when using violence against the poorest and the most marginalised, especially if they are black. Remember how white University of Cape Town students encircled their black counterparts in the knowledge that police would not use violence against them?

The conclusion, regardless of who you think is better or worse, is that South Africa has normalised violence as a form of settling disputes.

As violence by university students attests, this normalisation is now multi-generational. Very few if any students were born at the time when apartheid repression and violence made counter-violence a legitimate tool of protest.

Faith communities never miss an opportunity to tell anyone that theirs “is a religion of peace”, especially when one of their own has been implicated in violence against those of a different faith.

South Africa’s culture of violence and the faith community’s general credibility among the faithful, requires that the violent reflex starts being condemned from our pulpits (or whichever be the equivalent preaching platform in other faiths).

Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, hosting South Sudan arch enemies, President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar for an ecumenical retreat, is an example worth replicating within our local situation.

Kiir and Machar have been figureheads in a civil war that has claimed over 400,000 lives since 2013, when Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup.

The local church and mosque might not have the capacity to stop a civil war but it has the moral authority to make its members think deeper about how their reliance on violence might be at odds with the teaching of their respective faiths.

Better still, faith communities could teach conflict resolution as part of their outreach programmes to help individuals, families, communities, taxi associations and so on — to imagine different ways of settling disputes.

Being shocked or outraged by what they did to Myburgh’s book is unfortunately not helpful. If anything, it suggests one has not been paying attention; because in South Africa we have long since been burning buildings, trains, books and whatever else —shamefully.

* 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.