Police harassment: Back to the future?

Frans Cronje on the brutish approach taken to the leaders of the Balfour protests

Media reports suggest that the police have beaten and tortured a number of people while hunting for ‘community leaders' in Balfour in Mpumalanga. This may be an early indication of how the ANC plans to deal with grass roots threats to its political hegemony in South Africa.

Earlier this week Balfour in Mpumalanga saw a popular uprising by residents of that community who protested against high levels of unemployment and general failures of service delivery. Balfour is an important case because President Zuma personally visited the area in 2009 following a similar uprising and promised to address the demands of residents. That a second round of protest action has now erupted suggests that the community has lost confidence even in Mr Zuma.

The current Balfour protests followed the same pattern as the many other mini-uprisings that occur across a number of South Africa's townships every year. Residents get fed up with their local council and take to the streets to burn tyres and erect obstacles. Regrettably in many of these protests local businesses and government offices are ransacked and often burned down. Foreign African immigrants are attacked and hounded out of the affected areas. The response by the State is to deliver all manner of platitudes to the community while sending in the police with shotguns to restore order. The State is often quick to blame the protests on criminal elements or 'agitators' exploiting the community.

Having lost faith in their elected, or deployed, leaders the community turn to ‘community leaders' who speak for them and articulate their concerns to the media. In the case of Balfour one particular young man spoke to the media on a number of occasions - he was articulate and appeared to speak with a degree of community backing. He was not a formal politician in the sense of representing a party or being a town councilor nor did he come from within the ranks of the ANC.  

It is around this young man and others like him that the current Balfour protests give us particular cause for concern. Media reports since yesterday evening indicate that the police have been searching for ‘community leaders' said to be behind the protest action. The police have allegedly beaten the family members of these young men and women and ransacked their houses. The father of one of these leaders reports a police officer beating him with a rifle butt while questioning him about the whereabouts of his son.

The local ‘community leadership' is now reportedly in hiding.

There is unfortunately some precedent for this type of behavior by the police after 1994. In a well documented case in 2004 members of the Landless People's Movement, a small South African activist  organisation, reported being detained and tortured by the police following a protest action arranged by that organisation. The torture involved beatings and suffocation.  

If the most recent allegations in Balfour are true then we should all be very concerned. For what we are seeing is that where black communities challenge the political hegemony of the ANC and establish a ‘community leadership' structure outside of that party, the State is prepared to use the security forces to force the local community into giving up the ‘community leadership'. Doubtless where those leaders have instigated public violence and the like they should be arrested but not via torture and terror.

The level of popular protest against the ANC in black communities is a great embarrassment to the party and the Government. To their great relief this dissatisfaction has not yet translated into a significant loss of electoral support for the party although it eventually must. It must also have dawned on the ANC that the threat to their political hegemony in South Africa does not come so much from Mrs Zille in Cape Town as from the sense of disillusionment growing in poor and black communities. The specific risk being that a grass roots protest movement pulls the political rug out from under current leadership of the ANC. If these assumptions are correct then it is difficult to escape the conclusion that what concerns the State in Balfour is not so much the violence and disorder in the community, but rather that the community is establishing a leadership structure outside of the hegemony of the ANC. Today it is twenty years to the day since Mr Mandela walked out of prison. We are left to reflect whether any of his party's supporters thought that they would again see the day when the police broke down their doors in the middle of the night and with threats of violence demanded to know the whereabouts of the ‘community leaders'.

Frans Cronje is deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in the Institute's online newsletter, SAIRR Today.

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