Witnessing the past standing in front of the present

“I am in tears!!! NOTHING has changed! Black bodies, bodies of the poor are expendable”

Last week we posted our first podcast, when the past stands in front of the present, where the trauma implications of the current state of emergency was discussed in relation to the historical context of the state of emergency during apartheid – a relatively recent lived experience. In the midst of producing the episode a storm erupted (figuratively and literally) in Cape Town that has only served to emphasise that.

There was the relocation of homeless people by the City of Cape Town (CoCT) to a few sites around the city, the most controversial of which has been at the Strandfontein sports complex (location coordinates). Now much has been written, tweeted and posted about this with differing perspectives including the city’s defence of its actions (scroll through the Cape Town together facebook page for information). What I want to highlight is how these enforced relocation’s have been a trigger for many, evoking memories of forced removals during apartheid and even more recently in relation to Blikkiesdorp and Wolwerivier.

Then over the Easter weekend there were live accounts of forced evictions occurring in an area near Khayelitsha called Empolweni. Again there is a fair amount of information about what happened (Cape Town together) but what I want to highlight is the presence of casspirs (armoured vehicles), tear gas, live ammunition, rubber bullets and law enforcement and police officials dressed in riot gear. Meanwhile, across the other end of the peninsula there were reports of violence, abuse and threatening behaviour by security personnel, accompanied by casspirs, in the township of Masiphumelele (warning: the linked article contains a number of expletives).

Picture of a casspir belonging to the old south african police

The scenes alluded to above have a deeply historical familiarity. As was noted in the podcast, during the State of emergency in the 1980’s (as well as before that) the South African police and military were effectively at war with many South African communities, especially (or perhaps exclusively) those that were poor and black (I am using black as an inclusive term here). This war was epitomised by the use of casspirs, guns, live ammunition, violence and tear gas. It should not, therefore, require a leap of imagination to see the stark parallels with what is occurring today, as indicated by the raw quote fronting this blog, a response to the events in Empolweni. The mere witness of these current acts trigger a trauma response and so what about those who are directly experiencing it? This is what Lane mentions in the podcast, it is trauma upon trauma (added to that of poverty, hunger, unemployment, covid).

What we are seeing and witnessing are mirrored appraoches of what has been used before; and always against those with the least amount of societal power. Is it possible for our safety and security establishment, the authorities, to imagine an alternative way of engagement?

There are obstacles to that move. First, the police and military, as state bodies, were never re-cultured after apartheid, only restructured. This has meant that the shadow of the past still lives and moves in their institutional cultures. Second, in a violent country such as ours there are also too many individual members of these bodies who are operating in highly stressful spaces with unresolved trauma.  Third, the authorities have too often demonstrated either an ignorance (the benefit of the doubt view) or a disregard of the aforementioned historical reality. We see, for example, that a relatively newly constituted body such as Law Enforcement in the CoCT has missed the opportunity to have established a different legacy to that which has existed in the past.

There is an urgency for those in authority to become intentional about disrupting the cycles of trauma, both within the bodies of safety and security and between these bodies and the communities they are meant to protect and serve. To be sure, this is no one stop shop process. However, the current trajectory of how communities are policed only increases the historical disconnect, exacerbating existing distrust and anger. And we cannot wait for this work to start only when the pandemic is contained, since covid did not create it.