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Opinion piece by Crispin Hemson, Director for Centre of Nonviolence at the Durban University of Technology

Opinion piece by Crispin Hemson, Director for Centre of Nonviolence at the Durban University of Technology

Finding hope in the ashes – a response to violence in our province

We in KwaZulu-Natal have been through a series of destructive and disturbing events that may not yet be complete; we at DUT have lost three students in this process and many students and staff have been deeply traumatised. DUT prides itself on its potential for making a positive impact, and this analysis aims to enable us to find ways of achieving a more hopeful society.

What inequality has done

First, the fundamental point of inequality, the denial of the most fundamental access to goods and services to so many people What was meant to be a rainbow nation has become a nation with a multiracial elite, a narrow middle class and great numbers of people with limited access to basic necessities and services. As the middle classes have moved from State to private health and schooling, so has the quality of care and resources declined for the majority. Even those who make some economic progress, like taxi owners, are vulnerable to extreme forms of violence, while disturbingly high levels of gender-based violence, assault and homicide add to people’s desperation.

One thing has been clearly demonstrated – our society and economy are vulnerable to direct action that exploits this situation. When so many people experience a sense of desperation and exclusion – and sometimes direct hunger – society becomes vulnerable to reckless reactions. The messages that were beamed out directly and deliberately on social media to the majority were an invitation to indulge yourselves for once. Given that permission, they responded. In Lamontville, crowds surged onto the narrow pedestrian bridge over the uMlazi River to loot Mega City; in the stampede perhaps 15 people died, their bodies lying there for hours while people dragged trolleys and goods over them. One looter told me that he finally realised that the one body he kept standing on was that of his friend, an image of how devalued the poor have become at even the most sacred of moments.

While the economy has suffered, that suffering is not evenly spread. The major firms will recover; many township and rural businesses have been crushed, entrenching monopoly capital. The unrest has revealed is how easily we can move from a situation where a small minority enjoy highly privileged conditions in a sea of poverty, unemployment and dispossession, to one where the small minority continues its privileged position and the majority have even less as the fabric of society and economy are torn. Violence intensifies inequality; it is inept at reducing it.

The role of race

Our inequality is not simply economic, but racial, and it draws on long historical roots. The response to the provocation of looting and arson in the absence of police became racialised in places – though not everywhere. Some communities were unable to organise themselves to reduce the possibility of damage. Some successfully worked across social divisions to create both security and a sense of community capacity to address common problems. Others were organised, but in ways that could well perpetuate division and conflict and intensify anger. There is a danger of assuming that killings were either ‘criminal’ or ‘racial’ – there were incidents that were clearly both, in my view. How did this happen?

In South Africa, race has shaped our experiences – and those of our ancestors. The difficulty is that these personal and social histories have so often been of racially conflictual relationships. Historically, White sugar farmers would put Black supervisors over Indian cane cutters, or factory owners would give Indian supervisors over Black workers. We also had direct violence at several points where conflicts involved different groups, as in 1949 or 1985. We have such partial and one-sided understanding of the lives and histories of others.

Under stress – and the looting, arson and threats on social media were highly stressful – people can misread present events, framing them through the fears and mistrust of the past. Violence becomes so significant in society not just because of one violent act, but because of the ways in which people’s responses may amplify the violence. Where people were killed, as in Phoenix, an apparent denial of the role of race has caused deep hurt.

Another key point of escalation was the unrestrained use of guns. While people justify gun use by reference to situations in which they might be the intended victim, most use expands greatly the possibilities for destruction, often with long and harsh consequences. Attention will inevitably now go to the specifics of shootings in the case of deaths; those who chose to use guns to take lives need to accept the full consequences of the law.

Our capacity for bringing change

The unrest also revealed people’s yearnings for a more humane and fair society, evident in the willingness to engage in major clean-ups. What processes would support this? One decisive shift has been the sense of the failure of politicians and their capacity of so many leaders to flaunt their ability to loot brazenly. Possibly people expected politicians to achieve more than even the best could. This, though, opens the way for civil society to assert itself, to start processes of change within and between communities at local and provincial levels. In this we need to find each other beyond our histories, to learn about the lives of others and to find creative ways of building local economies. We confront violence not by outdoing it but by demonstrating the power of nonviolent processes.

Crispin Hemson is Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence at Durban University of Technology and can be reached at 082 926 5333/031 373 5499

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