By: Richard Poplak
Richard Poplak says the Ferguson protests explain subtle similarities with those from South Africa.
Yesterday, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, the first day of the second round of what were in different times referred to as “race riots” unfolded, much as everyone expected they would. In the images of jacked-up riot cops facing off against enraged citizens, we find an American city aping South African archival footage. It’s not just that America’s enduring, undying racial nightmare echoes South Africa’s, or vice versa—that’s both a no-shit truism and a vast over-simplification. But it’s a reminder that in divided countries with histories of institutionalised racism, reconciliation without actually reconciling—which is to say, hugging and making up without addressing the structurally ingrained disparities that keep old legacies alive—means that justice is not just impossible, but a massive cover-up, a ruse used by power to sucker everyone into quiescence.
Let’s recap. Last August, two characters lifted from Straight Outta Compton’s liner notes meet cute on West Florrisant Avenue. The first is a black teenager named Michael Brown, armed with a pack of cigarillos he may or may not have lifted from a convenience store. The second is a white cop named Darren Wilson, armed with the martial accouterments of the modern-day American police warrior. Both are straight from central casting: Brown is large, black and imposing; Wilson is doughy, white and freckled. Their encounter occurs within a specific and highly ritualised power matrix: white policeman cruising shark-like through a black community, keeping order. But order for what, and for whom? Ferguson is home to an American underclass, those fated to consume but not accrue. Policing this status quo has its challenges, but with diligence, hard work and malice, the Fergusons of this world can not only be tamed, but rendered invisible.
Occasionally, there’s a glitch. Police and young black men exchange words hundreds of times a day in America; this time the conversation made history. Wilson tells Brown to quit walking in the street; there is some kind of altercation; Brown either punches or doesn’t punch Wilson in the face. In the testimony he gave to the St. Louis grand jury, Wilson describes Brown’s last moments with a soliloquy that could’ve been pulled from a Richard Price novel, all dead ends and false starts and hiccuppy elisions:
So when he stopped, I stopped. And then he starts to turn around, I tell him to get on the ground, get on the ground.
He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me.
And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.
I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.
Brown, reduced to animal sounds and brute enormity, is described with words pulled from a slavers’ ledger. And there are things we wanted to know, things we heard over the course of the past 100 days from witnesses and news reports and Twitter feeds: was the teenager shot in the back; were his hands raised in self-defense; did he yell, “Don’t shoot”? The jury heard three-months worth of conflicting testimony—truth backed out of the courtroom and fled into the American phantasmagoria, to be reformed and repackaged by one side or the other. But one thing was certain: Brown was left on the street for four and a half hours, on his stomach and baking in the heat. It was a final indignity, and Ferguson became shorthand for the systemic aggression that black American men encounter daily—they must be tamed or rendered invisible.
America was on edge for 100 days awaiting the grand jury’s decision. According to US Department of Justice Statistics, rare is the prosecutor that doesn’t get the indictment he wants. “If a prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” stated Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor. How did Wilson beat the odds? If grand juries are there more or less to rubber stamp a prosecutor’s intentions, then county prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch did what many prosecutors do in the case of a cop shooting: play possum.
McCulloch, who yesterday blamed social media for all the tension, may seem like the villain in this story, but there is always a McCulloch—they function as the copious goops of lube. McCulloch doesn’t represent the law so much as he represents the county’s power structure: in a divided land like America, where politicians promise their constituents Law and Order, the law belongs to the rich, and the order is imposed on the poor. And so Ferguson has exploded once again, while protests have spread across America under a single, pithy standard: Black Lives Matter.
Like America, South Africa is enjoying its post-racial moment. Like America, South Africa’s post-racial moment describes a veneer, an invention of Brand South Africa ad hacks. Barack Obama was installed in the White House on the back of a successful marketing campaign—Hope!—and not because race had ceased to be a factor in American life. His presidency is a testament to the brilliance of his cutting-edge campaign technology, and not the thawing of America’s racial divide. The America he presides over is as segregated as it was during the Jim Crow years, perhaps more so. How do you fix Ferguson? Demilitarise the police? Increase diversity in municipal and state politics? Promote racial dialogue? Good luck with that. The Michael Brown’s of the world are the bottom bricks under a vast and inviolable socio-economic pyramid, and renovating that structure will take energy of great and sustained magnitude.
Democratic South Africa, birthed by Rainbow rhetoric, long ago learned that all that post-racial stuff was all a jape, a joke, all winking nonsense verse. The money stayed in the same old hands (visit Stellenbosch and ask around about redistribution), while a new black elite was created to give some worth to the bumper sticker maxims. These politically connected few were plugged into gruesome and wasteful middleman position—South Africa’s arrivistes make nothing, create nothing, and have no power. “There are no rich black people in South Africa,” insists Julius Malema, and he’d know: in this world, real wealth means actual power, which includes connections to politicians and policymakers who are bound by money to take note of your demands. South Africa’s new wealthy have purchasing power, which is like downloading the free app. Our likely next president, Cyril Ramaphosa, speaks in the Obama-ish measured tones of a technocrat—he makes old money swoon. That’s largely because he defended the old money, and in doing so precipitated South Africa’s own watershed moment of violence, Marikana.
What links the murder of one teenager in Missouri with the murder of 34 men in Marikana? After all, the Marikana murders do not at first blush have a racial component; the cops were black, as were the dead miners. For another, Marikana was a massacre, and as ruthless as America’s authorities may be, they haven’t gunned down folks in bulk since Ludlow, Marikana’s spiritual precedent, in 1914—they prefer to do their killing in increments. But how can Marikana, or the murder of Andries Tatane, who had the almighty f*ck beat out of him by cops live on camera (all of whom were acquitted of any wrongdoing), or any other of South Africa’s other black victims of police brutality not have a racial component—cops kill black people in South Africa all the time.
Here’s the link: when power and wealth are unevenly distributed; when “sophisticated”, “liberalised” economies demand winners and losers with no in-betweens; when we pray like faith-blind zealots before a zero-sum covenant; and when historical racial segregation provides a ready-made overclass and underclass, black lives simply don’t matter. The Marikana massacre occurred because black lives don’t matter; Andries Tatane was tenderized on tape because black lives don’t matter; Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson because black lives don’t matter; Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman while brandishing Scittles because black lives don’t matter.
And on. And on. And on.
I bring all of this up not only because it is unfair, not only because I naively believe in a just universe, and not only because I don’t want my taxes to go to the continued slaughter of my fellow South Africans. I bring it up with no small measure of self-interest, because any society this unevenly balanced will collapse in on itself—“the rules of the conscience,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “hinge on interest in the self.” If Ferguson sends a wave of fire across America and into Africa, scorching even the sea-spray-drenched ramparts of Clifton and the V&A Waterfront, Fiat justicia et pereat mundus, as folks used to say—Let justice be done even if the world perishes. But it would be unfortunate, mostly because there are ways to unpick the knots of racial power imbalances—ways that are actually more exciting than violence, that allow us all to live morally, and therefore properly. We’ll have to learn to share—power, wealth, responsibility—or we’ll have to go to war.
Perhaps Ferguson will promote a genuine global movement, one that nudges us all forward, because I’d like to think we’ve grown up about the motives of our leaders. Obama’s speech, in which he appealed for calm by echoing the words of Michael Brown’s parents, was little more than a case of money’s Manchurian Candidate begging on behalf of the status quo. Any South African leader would do the same. They’ll have to beg a lot harder in the coming years. This rage is contagious and patient zero lies dead so deep in our terrible pasts that he or she untraceable, a smudge on history that we cannot remember and cannot forget.
Richard Poplak is an award-winning author, journalist, graphic novelist and doggeralist. He has spent the last four years travelling Africa, researching a book that interrogates the notion of a rising Africa, entitled Continental Shift (2014). He is a contributing writer to Daily Maverick, and numerous other publications across the world. He can be followed @poplak, or found at www.richardpoplak.com