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The Class Character of Police Violence in South Africa

'From colonialism to apartheid and through to contemporary South Africa, it is the threat presented by the masses which means they need to be permanently contained, and this remains the enduring imperative of policing practices.' 

William Shoki23 July 2020

The Class Character of Police Violence in South Africa

This article is part of the Global Perspectives on Policing series on the Verso Blog. You can find other articles from the series here. 

The latest round of protests against police violence in the Unites States has been defined by international solidarity. Since George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis at the end of May, protesters in Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and on the African continent, have defied and stretched the limits of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions with a determination that suggests the beginnings of a new global anti-racist movement.

In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) launched an Alliance Anti-Racism Campaign, a “campaign of solidarity with the people of the USA.” Sections of the South African population were quick to point out the flagrant hypocrisy of this move by the ANC, who had until then responded with a shrugging indifference to incidents of brutality from police and soldiers at home. Since the imposition of a national lockdown in March, at least ten people have been killed by South African security forces, the murder of Collins Khosa being the most publicized of these cases. Khosa, 40, was drinking in his yard in Alexandria, a poor black neighbourhood on the border of Sandton, South Africa’s richest suburb, in April when soldiers stormed in and accused him of flouting a COVID-19 public ban on alcohol. The soldiers slammed Khosa’s head against a cement wall and a steel gate, and hit him with the butt of a rifle.  The force of the blow caused a lethal injury. Khosa had broken no law. Despite this, the Defence Force cleared the soldiers from any wrongdoing and President Cyril Ramaphosa dithered for more than two months before making a public statement about Khosa and the ten other victims of police murder during lockdown.

Prior to Floyd’s death, little attention was paid to domestic police violence in South Africa. In fact, during the lockdown, a lot of people initially cheered the government’s harsh and punitive approach as a kind of necessary evil required to contain the virus’ transmission (the indictment of 230, 000 people for breaking lockdown regulations was either celebrated or ignored). Why, initially, was there so little outrage over police violence at home?

It might have something to do with the role played in such violent events by social media. Generally, under consumer capitalism, there exists a tendency in our media-saturated society to render all political events as media commodities, constructing a landscape where, as the social theorist Jean Baudrillard once explained, the nature of the real is preceded and determined by its mediatized representation. Society becomes predisposed to fascination with spectacular and immediate images of violence due to their overproduction – in Baudrillard's time it was wars in the Middle East, terrorism and football riots – in ours, it is images of police brutality. Their circulation exists first and foremost for their consumption, and rather than induce sustained protest action, they often trigger outbursts of anger which quickly dissipate into apathy without effecting structural change (the recent anti-police actions across the United States will hopefully prove the exception to this rule.) 

That Khosa's homicide lacked footage, effectively excluded it from the market of this attention economy, whose grip over our lives has worsened as the majority of human activity has migrated online in the era of physical distancing. This was also the case before the pandemic – police murder rates per capita in South Africa are actually three times higher than in America, a country five times our size. But America's lasting cultural hegemony means that South Africans routinely import a distinctively American sensibility when it comes to understanding police violence at home, one with anti-black racism at its center. Yet this framework quickly reveals itself to be ill-suited to understanding the dynamics of our situation, given the fact that unlike America, we are a majority black country. And so it is almost always the case that both the perpetrators of this violence, as well as its victims, are black. It cannot simply be, as it is often decried in the United States, that our law enforcement agents are uniformed white supremacists. What else is at play here?


Throughout the lockdown, the majority of the military and police presence in South Africa has been concentrated in townships and informal settlements. People were right to express surprise that the police, after years of neglect of these communities, where dire social conditions increase the rate of crime and disorder, were now suddenly out in full force. This contradiction uncovers what many historians have previously pointed out – that the invention and subsequent function of the police as a professional body of law enforcers, is not as a response to crime, but as a response to the threat that collective action poses to elite rule and the unequal social arrangements which undergirds it. Through rebellions, strikes and other forms of resistance throughout history, the masses have contested their domination and exploitation by the ruling class. From colonialism to apartheid and through to contemporary South Africa, it is the threat presented by the masses which means they need to be permanently contained, and this remains the enduring imperative of policing practices. 

South Africans in informal settlements and the rural countryside are the part of the population deemed most threatening to the country’s ruling class. Capitalism has made them superfluous to its present profit-making purposes, excluding them from the formal economy and condemning them to a life of mass unemployment, underemployment and indigence. The South African state was mindful of how the lockdown suspended the activity of the tenuous informal economy on which most are dependent. The state does not care that the range of protections it introduced to offset worsening poverty are meagre, and that it lacks a competent administration to implement them effectively. For instance, a proposal to top up our child support grant by R500 month  as a way of effectively distributing additional income to precarious households took weeks to be adopted, and when it eventually was, it was decided that it should be disbursed per caregiver, contrary to the demands of campaigners for the grant to be allocated per child. For those who would not be reached by this intervention, a special distress grant of R350 a month was introduced – for which 15 million people potentially qualified. So far, however, less than two million people have been paid, more than three months after the lockdown started.

Compared to the rest of the world, and other middle income countries such as Mexico, Turkey, and even Bolsonaro’s Brazil , South Africa is particularly miserly when it comes to measures introduced to mitigate the effects of lockdown on the poor and vulnerable. These were never introduced in a sincere effort to sustain livelihoods, but rather to keep people subdued, with the military and police on standby just in case the masses decide that they have had enough of not having enough – as protesting miners in Marikana did in 2012. Back then, after 34 miners were massacred by the police, there were no mass, society-wide protests. That President Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a significant role in those killings, is now mostly warmly embraced by the South African public, shamefully summarises the public legacy of Marikana. 

The best example of this South African middle class hypocrisy, comes through one of its most cherished exports, the comedian Trevor Noah. As the host of the Daily Show, he has been praised for his critical commentary on American police brutality. However, not long ago, he described the murderous action taken by the police at Marikana as being appropriate: “which strike was ever ended with teargas,” he joked. Noah, exalted as a liberal spokesperson for those outraged at the excesses of the Trump era, originally let slip his true colours at home and exposed himself as a reactionary willing to sanction the violent repression of strikes and protests. 

That wealthy South Africans are more ready to identify with the victimisation of black Americans than with their own compatriots reveals an unwillingness to confront the class character of police repression. It betrays, in other words, a veiled attachment to the prevailing social order and its continued reproduction, or at least a lack of interest in meaningfully challenging it, since the overriding concern for victims of police brutality is simply that they are black, not that they are black and poor. Black middle-class South Africans feel culturally closer to African Americans (much like white South Africans imagining themselves as extensions of European nationalities, especially the British, rather than ‘Africans’), and aspire to the cultural leadership and metropolitan chic that they have come to globally represent. This is despite the fact that such ingratiation is unrequited, and is instead usually met with indifference or cultural fetishism (such as the cherry-picking approach to African cultures in the film Black Panther), expressive of a typically American contempt for real Africans. 

On the flip side, poor and working-class black South Africans, have more in common with their poor and working-class American counterparts – whatever their race – than they do with the middle or upper strata of either country. Indeed, through their shared experiences of economic oppression and state repression, they have yet more in common with their counterparts in Kenya or India, where police crackdowns during lockdown have not been dissimilar to those here but are underreported. Clearer parallels still, to the experiences of poor South Africans can be found in Palestine, where Israeli Apartheid continues to harden with annexations of the West Bank planned, or even France, where it wasn’t long ago that the police violently suppressed the gilet jaunes. Nevertheless, spurred by the media, visible protests emblazoning America, cheered on by a cohort of Twitter personalities, NGO professionals and media commentators, are now trying to reconstruct the resistance to police brutality in South Africa as a kind of domestic Black Lives Matter moment.


The American political scientist Adolph Reed has been foremost in critiquing the ways in which Black Lives Matter, emerging first as a set of protests against police brutality in Ferguson in 2014, has since failed to bind into a concrete social movement. By approaching the problem of police violence in a mostly race-reductionist way, the problem becomes that such protest at best can only achieve a set of symbolic goals – the chanting of the slogan at gatherings, the memorialization of those killed by the police– but struggles to develop a coherent vision for social transformation. The most forceful of BLM’s recent proposals is evident in the demand of the slogan to “abolish the police.” What this means in practical terms, is a range of different things, such as reimagining policing as a public good, or gradually disinvesting from it so as to dismantle it altogether. What all of these miss, however, is that so long as there is a capitalist state entrenching private property relations, there will always be some kind of security apparatus to defend it with racism coded into its logic of operation – it will prevail no matter how hard you try to reform it in order to give it a more human face, or it will gradually become privatised, as is very much the case in South Africa already.

Nevertheless, unlike previous waves of protests, the most recent explosion of rage in America has crystallised into the concrete demand that police departments be defunded. Notwithstanding the particularities of the American situation from which it grew (such as the bloated budgets of city police forces), the difficulty of exporting this demand elsewhere uncovers some of its weaknesses. For example, South Africa’s police force experience budget cuts as an offshoot of general fiscal austerity, but all the problems associated with policing still prevail and are arguably made worse by this loss of income. What’s more, our high rates of crime and social disorder (a symptom of widespread poverty and inequality, it should be emphasized) would make defunding a difficult sell to the general public. How the South African case can be instructive then, is to perhaps more directly demonstrate that the best way to transform policing is to transform the broader political economy which structures policing. That is, we must channel this moment’s energy towards sustained organising for a better world beyond capitalism. When the dust settles and the Covid-19 wreckage is before us, then the real work starts – and for socialists, this must be the work of organising a mass movement, led by the working class, that is capable of taking us to that better world. There are no shortcuts or substitutes. 

It was Fred Hampton after all, the radical Black Panther who himself was first harassed by local police and then brutally assassinated by the FBI, who said,

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best, we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” 

We have to keep fighting, and know not only what it is we are fighting against, but also what we are fighting for.

William Shoki is a staff writer for Africa Is A Country. An earlier version of this article appeared on the site, and can be found here