Ficksburg, in the dusty heart of South Africa, was until last week one of the small, hopeless towns that one accelerated past unless you needed petrol. Towns like it have been the backdrop in recent years to an increasing number of protests, marches, burning tyres, angry crowds with raised fists. There have been the occasional volleys of stones. These have bounced of the armoured cars of the riot squad just as the anguish of the poor has bounced off the plexi-glass shielded consciences of our politicians.
Last week a man called Andries Tatane took part in a march against a state that is failing its people at the point where government matters most to individuals – the provision of water, power, health, education and housing. The basic ingredients of a decent life. Tatane was one of the faceless millions of South Africans who have been short-changed by the promise of prosperity that was the pot of gold at the end of our nation’s rainbow.
During the protest, for reasons that remain unclear, he was set upon and sjambokked by a large number of policemen in riot gear. He was then shot at close range and he died in the street soon afterwards.
Tatane is not the first person to die in what are called ‘service delivery protests.’ Some months ago police in another small, anonymous town shot a schoolgirl dead. There was a great deal of political pussyfooting about her death. There have been other deaths in other places. These earlier killings have slipped below the surface of our troubled political waters.
Tatane’s death has been different. First of all his murder was recorded on mobile phones and video cameras. It was immediately broadcast on state television, a sign that the news editor was thinking as a journalist not as a political lapdog. The images are so similar to the images that have been coming from Syria, Bahrain, Libya and before that from Egypt and Tunisia where there is now a flowering of hope and political optimism.
There are similarities and differences. The protesters across north Africa and the Middle East, as poor, as desperate the service delivery protesters in Ficksburg and elsewhere, came up against the murderous hubris of governments too long in power. The Jasmine Revolution is happening because dictators closed the space for dialogue long ago. That, combined with poverty, drove their people’s backs against the wall.
South Africans are getting closer to that wall, but there remains the hope of a different, democratic outcome. If we – the government, those aspiring to government, and the people, – learn to talk another languages, if we learn to listen.
Andries Tatane died in the arms of his friend Molefi Nonyane, one of the march organisers. Nonyane told reporters that he knows who the officers are because he had been talking to the men while helping to marshal the protest. ‘I was walking and talking with them,’ said Nonyane. ‘I thought we were working together, but they turned on the community and they took a life.’
Why did these policemen turn on the community? What allowed them to view an unarmed man as an enemy? Why did they kill Andries Tatane in full view, according to witnesses, of their commanding officers? Why, unlike Nonyane, did these policemen think that they were working against, rather than with the community it is their job to protect?
The policemen involved have been arrested and charged. That is a good thing and the trial will reveal some uncomfortable truths about the nature and the exercise of state power in South Africa. There was, I believe, something more complex than the unruliness of a few rogue cops led to the killing of Andries Tatane’s in Ficksburg. Andries Tatane was one of many South Africans who, excluded from a political conversation with an increasingly defensive state, have been using the language of the street, the collective physical conversation of protest that is impossible to ignore.
The protagonists in this particular tragedy operate within a political culture in which debate, difference, dissent and tolerance are losing traction as the fundamental values on which South Africa is premised. Those who express their dissatisfaction with how wealth and power are distributed are increasingly vilified or silenced. It is how this we engage in this conversation that will determine our future. All of us, citizens, policemen, politicians, need to learn how to hear each other.