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Political Repression in South Africa

In his famous speech from the dock in April 1964, Nelson Mandela spoke of ‘revolutionary democracy’ rooted in precolonial forms of collective deliberation and decision making. In a speech given in April 1982, Joe Foster, then General Secretary of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), stressed the need for workers ‘to build their own powerful and effective organisation’ allied to but independent of the elite-dominated national liberation movement, and to build democratic organisation and practices from the shop floor with the aim of attaining ‘greater worker participation in and control over production’. In May 1987, Murphy Morobe, a leader in the United Democratic Front (UDF), argued that ‘By developing active, mass-based democratic organisations and democratic practices within these organisations, we are laying the basis for a future democratic South Africa’.

However, during the transition from apartheid, the dominant conception of democracy among elites followed the general arrangements made at the end of the Cold War. A struggle waged by millions for the construction of popular democratic power and participatory forms of democracy was reduced to elections, the courts, a free commercial press, and the substitution of NGOs, now described as ‘civil society’, for democratic forms of popular organisation.

Much like the situation so well described by Peter Hallward in Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, an account of the 2004 coup in Haiti, politics came to be understood as a largely intra-elite contestation. Various factions of the elite spoke in the name of the most oppressed sections of society through a form of paternalism deeply steeped in colonial ideas about the political capacities of impoverished black people.

On 18 December 1996 Mandela promulgated a new Constitution that enshrined an expansive version of the standard set of liberal rights, including the set of rights that protect free political activity. The bulk of South Africa’s middle class, including its professional intellectuals, assumed that the new Constitution meant that the country had magically transcended the colonial authoritarianism of the past; the counter-authoritarianism that had festered in the African National Congress (ANC) in exile; and the militarisation of popular politics in some parts of the country in the latter years of apartheid and during the transition.

By the time the new Constitution was promulgated, the popular democratic forms of politics that had developed in the trade union movement following the Durban strikes in 1973, and then in community-based struggles that were linked together under the banner of the UDF from 1983, had been demobilised, drawn under the authority of the new ruling party or replaced by a set of NGOs.

Independent forms of self-organisation and popular demands for more participatory forms of democracy were frequently treated as criminal, as plots by foreign powers, or as machinations by remnants of the apartheid intelligence forces aimed at restoring apartheid. Frantz Fanon warned in 1961 of the ‘incapacity of the national middle class to rationalize popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action’. That warning would prove all too prescient in post-apartheid South Africa.

For the first decade or so of the new order, state repression was often not acknowledged in the bourgeois public sphere. Accounts of repression by grassroots activists were largely ignored, disbelieved, or presented as consequent to an imputed ignorance about how the new democracy worked. When repression was acknowledged, it was generally seen as a hangover from the apartheid past that would soon be resolved by the magical powers of the new Constitution.

This began to change on 13 April 2011 when Andries Tatane, a school teacher and community activist, was shot dead by the police during a protest against general social abandonment, and, in particular, the state’s failure to provide water to many of the residents in the small rural town of Ficksburg. Tatane was unarmed and the crowd of 4,000 that he led was peaceful. His murder was filmed and broadcast on television news. At least twenty-five people, and quite possibly considerably more, had been killed in protests before Tatane, and at least twelve activists had been assassinated. However, the fact that Tatane’s murder was captured on film and screened on national television began to generate some understanding of the reality that repression was, in fact, a constitutive feature of the new order.

The state massacre of thirty-four striking mine workers in Marikana, a platinum mining town, on 16 August 2012 laid bare the authoritarian underside of the new order for all to see. Television news bulletins around the world screened footage of the massacre taken from behind one of the police lines. That footage showed crouching miners, armed with rudimentary weapons, running towards a police line. It did not show that the miners were running because they were under attack from another police line, including armoured vehicles, from the rear.

Initial responses to the massacre in the bourgeois public sphere took the form of the mobilisation of an orgy of colonial stereotypes about the striking miners, including declarations of irrationality, superstition, attempts to cast the strikers as pre-modern subjects unfit for the modern world, and baseless claims about malevolent ‘outside agitators’. It was repeatedly argued that the police had acted in self-defence. Careful reporting by Greg Marinovich began to break down the police account of the massacre, which had initially been uncritically repeated by much of the media. Later on, further reporting and academic work began to excavate the reasons for the strike, the long political traditions on which the strikers were drawing, and the forms of organisation that they had used.

In terms of state repression, Marikana remains the bloodiest stain on the accommodation between capital and the interests of the national bourgeoisie that has shaped the post-apartheid order. But Marikana did not arrive like a thief in the night.


Police barricade the entrance to the City Hall during a march of thousands of members of Abahlali baseMjondolo protesting against political repression, Durban, 8 October 2018. Credit: Photograph by Madelene Cronjé / New Frame

Police barricade the entrance to the City Hall during a march of thousands of members of Abahlali baseMjondolo protesting against political repression, Durban, 8 October 2018.
Photograph by Madelene Cronjé / New Frame


A History of Violence