reactions to a massacre

My last few blog posts have been discussing ‘what’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners’… and the bigger picture considerations when assessing what led to the massacre at a Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa a few weeks ago.

Previous posts in this mini series covered:
1. Democratic principles;
2. Human Rights;
3. Cultural violence; and
4. Structural violence.

In the final post in my short series, I will be exploring the reactions of South Africans a bit further – at least the aspects that have amazed and concerned me. I might be throwing the cat among the pigeons, but here goes...

5. ‘us’ and ‘them’- or ‘ubuntu’ vs ‘white guilt’
The term ‘Nation-building’ is frequently bandied about in political and intellectual circles in this country. I would prefer to speak of community-building, since national identity and patriotism are problematic, twentieth-century terms more likely to start wars than build a sunny shared future for us all. Disputed terminology aside, however, what we have instead in South Africa are the fat cats, the disempowered and the aliens (that’s what ‘mlungu’ – the term black people use when referring to us whities means, if you didn’t know). Again, ‘ubuntu’ is spoken of with misty eyes…yet all I see and hear is ‘white guilt’ – this notion that I am guilty and a part of the problem merely by being white.

Let me have a little rant for just a paragraph about my pet hate, ‘white guilt’. No matter what I do or say, I cannot change what my ancestors did, and yet it is openly asserted that I must just hand over my money, my possessions, and any claim to being an equal participant in this country’s future. I must pay, pay, pay. Or leave. I am not wanted here. The ‘true’ South Africans are black. I am not even entitled to any rage or angst of my own, as my skin is apparently too white to even know what those emotions really are. Only in a black skin can you rail against the injustices. In a white skin, all you should do is apologise for ever having been born, and for now continuing to take up much-needed space, jobs and resources… I disagree. Vehemently.

Having said that, back to my point about the divisions, the lack of community or even shared realities… It’s hard to imagine anyone could live in this country and not know how many millions are struggling and desperate. But some of us live in such privileged bubbles, still enjoying (dare I say it?) colonial lifestyles. The disgusting disparity between rich and poor in this country is so taken-for-granted that most don’t even seem to notice anymore. If only more people would take off the blinkers as they drive from security estate to private school to shopping mall or church (yes, ouch!) …they might notice afresh the huddled masses of shacks and state housing blocks – dismal, depressing, desperate places. Then again, for some in say, Rondebosch, home, work, school and shops may all be in the one suburb, with never a reason to leave their bubble of privilege – and they are perversely proud of this…

I know, it’s hard to know where to begin, and it’s easy to be weighed down by the desperation and seemingly insurmountable problems… I just want to be completely honest here and say I am doing very little to help anyone these days either – I am completely absorbed with caring for our 5 month old daughter, and it’s hard to think of ways to be ‘useful’ to the outside world at this time. But everyone has something in their hand that they can use to contribute in some way – big or small – and I have just this, for now: writing. So here I am writing my little heart out, hoping someone might be impacted by what I am saying, or at least it might encourage some healthy debate about the issues.

6. Complacent Christians
Most disturbing to me is that this country is a predominantly Christian country, yet Christians are either conspicuous by their absence, or are actually supportive of police shooting people (presumably under the assumption that the police actually know who ‘deserves’ to be shot, and that it will never be one of their own loved ones)! My fellow Christians, we of all people – as supposedly spiritually minded (as opposed to materially/ economically driven) - should have a different perspective on all of this. An eternal perspective, a heart perspective.

Christians, I am shocked at how many of you are completely ‘missing in action’ here. Sure, the ‘religious leaders’ have issued statements in the aftermath of the massacre asking for prayers and reconciliation, but for the most part, Christians appear to live with their heads in the sand, like all the other privileged whities in this country. We are supposed to the voices for the voiceless, working tirelessly to ‘free the oppressed’ in every shape and form.

If you think I am being a bit extreme or idealistic here, then what bible are you reading? Jesus spoke about poverty and helping others much more than about sex outside of marriage, for example - the top issue on most Christian’s agendas. I could list a few key passages here, but there are too many to choose from – just go and read the New Testament. Yes, the WHOLE THING. The Old Testament shows a similar concern for the oppressed – try Isaiah 58:6-7 for starters:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…?”
Yes, prayer is important – we always say we should/will pray (but do we?)… but don’t stop there! This is one of many examples where God is telling us to get off our ‘blessed assurances’ and DO SOMETHING.

7. The role of witchcraft in Africa
I am probably more surprised than you are to see this as a heading here. It was not a part of my intended discussion at the start. I saw mention of ‘witchcraft’ being used by the men before they charged unflinchingly at the police, but I dismissed this as unimportant at first, or at least not unusual in an African context. I am also reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of the usual (white) Christian hysteria surrounding African customs and traditions. However, my eyes have unfortunately been opened to the pervasive and influential nature of witchcraft in African politics in researching these claims a bit further.

Political Anthropologists like Adam Ashford argue that the occult and politics have been ineluctably linked in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Since I don’t want to go into too much detail here, let the following quote suffice for those who are perhaps not religious, but need to understand this is a real phenomenon, not to be lightly dismissed:

"No one can understand life in Africa without understanding witchcraft and the related aspects of spiritual insecurity… the ways in which the insecurity aroused by fears of witchcraft and the general condition of spiritual insecurity are handled by political authorities over the long run will have profound significance for the long-term legitimacy of the democratic state"
- Ashford, Adam, 2005: ‘Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa’, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press.

Christians, forgive me for picking on you, but we are family (spiritually speaking) and family are supposed to be able to ‘call each other out’ on areas that need improvement. What annoys me about the references to ‘witchcraft’ in Christian reactions to the massacre, is not that it is untrue or exaggerated (which it often is), but that the analysis stops there. I would have thought that the use of ‘witchcraft’ by people who are obviously not Christians, nor ‘Westerners’, is not that surprising.

Useful discussions about preventing a massacre like this from taking place again should rather center around what pushes people to turn to ‘witchcraft’ and other desperate measures in the first place…. Obviously people who feel powerless and in need of some form of ‘protection’ or ‘power’ other than the official powers of government, police or the legal system. People who are constantly being let down by these systems, and left to fend for themselves, to protect themselves in the often lawless ‘townships’ and informal settlements. 

Just as Christians turn to God in prayer – for protections, for guidance, and so on… those whose worldview is based on a world of ‘spirits’ to be courted or placated, will turn to these ‘spirits’ for help in times of need. Instead, why aren’t we Christians trying to reach out to people before they reach that point - why aren’t we trying to LOVE them into ‘the Kingdom’ (instead of demonising them) – i.e. into God’s way of doing things? Perhaps we haven’t given a compelling enough picture of what that looks like, or they would have turned to prayer and peaceful means of protest and conflict resolution instead… There are many historic examples of Christians who led the way in fighting (through nonviolent means) to end slavery, or in the civil rights movement in the US - to name just a few examples.

For non-Christians, it is also easy to see the reliance on ‘witchcraft’ as indicative of the need for a functioning, well-trained police force, a healthy democracy with respect for human rights, and so on... (refer to my previous posts in this mini series).

In conclusion…
It is clear that peaceful protest and conflict resolution - or ‘conflict transformation’ as peace scholars would call it - are the only sustainable way forward - especially in a country with as much historic pain, fear and injustice as South Africa. Otherwise the cycle of violence and counter-violence will be never-ending.

But sadly, Christian or non-Christian, it seems everyone today embraces violence as the only way to bring about ‘justice’, order’ and ‘security’. That’s why few people bat an eyelash when the police mow down 34 striking miners. ‘They needed to re-establish order, didn’t they?’ and ‘the strike was illegal, anyway’…

As I wrote in a previous blog post, I am looking for a society and community I can be proud to introduce my daughter into. This is not it. 


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