Imagine it is 1952 in South Africa. A black woman is hired as a domestic worker for measly pay by a white family. Every day she travels on foot from her township home to her employee’s home in an affluent suburb. One day, however, she forgets her ‘dompas’. A familiar police officer dressed in blue stops her close to her destination. He demands the paperwork that she does not have on her. “He should know me though,” she thinks to herself, “I’ve travelled this path every day for the past few years.” There is no further discussion. He merely grabs her by the arm and throws her to the ground while screaming slurs. A van pulls up and she is flung inside the back of it. She is arrested for being black in a white space.
These stories seemed like exaggerated creative tales of a time long past. Apartheid is at times spoken about as if it happened centuries ago. Yet, the democracy I currently live in is only 26 years old. In the age of COVID-19, it is an unfortunate fact that we are hearing reports of the occurrence of similar police brutality. The circumstances are different – elitism, instead of racism, is the spurring factor. However, the underlying aggression faced during apartheid is now resurfacing (or perhaps was always present but is now more blatant than ever).
South Africa is currently in a military-patrolled lock down to slow the spread of COVID-19. It began on Thursday, 26 March 2020 at 23:59 and was intended to last for three weeks. It has since been extended for another two weeks, then reduced to a level 4 lockdown as of the 1st of May, with certain restrictions loosened such as the allowance of food deliveries. The South African National Defence Force and the South African Police Service have been deployed to patrol the streets to enforce the rules of this lock down. With this decision, the government inadvertently reintroduced apartheid aggression within the public.
As reported by UN News, the Director of Field Operations and Technical Cooperation for the UN Human Rights Office, Georgette Gagnon, has spoken out against South Africa’s “heavy-handed” and “highly militarised” security response to the virus: “We’ve received reports of disproportionate use of force by security officers, particularly in poor and informal settlements,” she said. “Rubber bullets, tear gas, water guns and whips have been used to enforce social distancing in shopping lines…and outside their homes.”
During apartheid, in keeping with their agenda of racial segregation, there was a formation of ‘townships’ – a section of society allocated for the residence of people of color located a distance away from white areas. The entire non-white urban population was forced to live in townships through the enforcement of the Group Areas Act of 1950. If a person of color was found in a white area without a ‘dompas’ (a document proving that a person was a worker needed in a white area), severe punishments such as beatings and imprisonment were carried out.
This system of housing carried over into post-apartheid South Africa. Many poverty-stricken people (55% as of 2015 according to SA’s Poverty Trends in South Africa report), due to generational poverty, continue to live in these townships. And with 79% of the population comprised of black people, townships mainly house this race group. Thus, this becomes a calculated move to separate poor black people from rich white people.
In the age of Covid-19, this national lockdown has called for the public to remain indoors. But this is not as simple for township residents as it is for others. Townships consist of small, unhygienic, and architecturally poor infrastructure. Large families physically cannot quarantine themselves in small spaces. Furthermore, many of these families’ incomes have been stripped due to the closing of businesses. With people starving, the idea of them leaving their homes in search of food is not an unrealistic one.
This rehashing of apartheid aggression through police brutality appears when people leave their homes. Once again, economic injustices sustain social injustices. There have been multiple reports on how police brutality is on the rise during this unsettling time in our lives. As reported by IOL, “According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) statistics, there have been two deaths in police custody…The stats also indicated that there were 11 cases of discharging an official firearm and 14 cases of torture, assault and corruption. There is also one case of rape by a police official.”
Such a case illustrating police brutality is that of Collins Khosa. He was a resident of the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, who was beaten to death by soldiers in April 2020 during the lockdown. Khosa’s life partner explained that the now-deceased victim was not breaking any lockdown regulations when soldiers confronted him for drinking an alcoholic beverage in his own yard. He was subsequently assaulted while officers of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) stood by and “facilitated” the soldiers’ assault on Khosa, according to court papers. He later died in his bed as a result of blunt force trauma.
It is an inconvenient truth for many South Africans to face, however, the feeling of apartness between citizens of our country still lingers even after 26 years of democracy. Whether it be due to racism, sexism or elitism, South Africa faces many socio-political issues that arise due to a system of segregation that has yet to be dismantled.