Thirty years ago, while collecting interviews and sound for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news on the fringes of a stalemated Johannesburg protest, a member of the evil apartheid police attempted to commiserate with me over the 78-day land dispute stand-off, siege and violent clashes then under way between a group of Canadas Mohawk people, the Quebec Provincial Police and eventually the military, in the town of Oka. Its regarded by Canada as a pivotal moment in their First Nations’ campaign for human rights.

Surely Canadians should be more concerned about what was happening in their own country, he asked. Possibly he was a bad cop trying to bait me. But it was a good question.

What is happening in our own country and to our own citizens should always be our focus, yet here in South Africa we’re bizarrely quick to latch onto US issues and obsessions and faithfully follow an American left (or what they call liberal) lead. Especially if it involves race. We do it despite glaring differences between the makeup and regulation of American society and its history; we do it despite strident calls here at home for decolonisation of the mind; we perhaps do it out of a desperate need for equivalency with a big player on the world stage.

For the ANC, emotive racial events or identity politics confrontations in foreign countries are gifts that go on giving; convenient diversions when it comes under pressure for its own fumblings and failures.

In its statement on George Floyd’s death the ANC had the chutzpah to call out America for placing ‘a perilously low value on black lives’. It then took the cake by urging Cyril Ramaphosa to engage with America diplomatically to ‘(defuse) racial tension and build social cohesion among different races’.

In a speech marking the launch of the alliance’s Black Friday protest, Ramaphosa did a far reach back to 1977 and Biko to find a murder perpetrated by the law enforcement apparatus of another, white, government, then offered up a  bland ‘deep regrets’ when he mentioned Collins Khosa and 10 other victims of recent SA law enforcement abuses. 

What he didn’t say

What he didn’t say then is that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was looking into 18 cases of deaths in police custody and 32 deaths as a result of police action, and many other charges against police in the period 26 March to 5 May.

When it comes to Victimhood Olympics, the Police vs People category, we’re front runners and we have been for decades.

Our police force (no one has ever really bought into the fantastical notion it is a ‘service’) was for years legally bound to enforce unjust laws and was notorious for brutal policing tactics. When that era ended and it attempted to set a new course, it settled into another couple of decades of mostly failing to protect, serve or be accountable to anyone, black or white.

We must resist being deflected from what needs to get done in our own backyard. We need to urgently find ways to transform our police law enforcement, not into a model of staff demographic representivity, but into a more trusted, respected and effective service.

What has been happening in the US in response to Floyd’s death should also galvanise us into finding a way out of this Groundhog Day cycle of outrage, hashtag, protest, violence, outrage yet again. We have to make more of an effort to halt the destructive identity politics narrative. While we are at it, of course, we also need to try some new methods for tackling poverty and firing up the economy.

Other countries’ maryrs

We certainly don’t need to be annexing other countries’ martyrs and causes right now. Or gloss over the past quarter of a century’s abysmal law enforcement.

The US demonstrations have naturally got the statue-culling season rolling again – and that’s probably going to bring about a revival of our 2015 plinth clashes.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan, ever on the front seat of the woke bandwagon, has created a pompous sounding Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. The Spectator’s Steerpike columnist quickly pointed out that when the commission gets down to discussing diversity priorities, bold Millicent Fawcett may pose a bit of a problem. The first female politician immortalised in London’s Parliament Square, chosen because of her constitutional campaign for the vote for women, has never been as well known as the suffragettes who opted for more dramatic lobbying such as hunger strikes and flinging themselves under race horses – tactics I can’t help thinking wokistas with a need for a G.O.A.T (greatest of all time) virtue signal may wish to emulate.

Steerpike notes, however, that Millie the ardent constitutionalist was also a staunch supporter of empire and a stout defender of the creation and management of concentration camps for Boers.

First woman in the Square. Votes for women. Naah. I reckon even without an Afrikaner minority vote she’s toast in this round of the toppling games. One whiff of imperialism and you’re out.

Also toast it seems is anyone who may be related to anyone, anytime back, who did anything the left orthodoxy currently says is wrong.

Virtues of tolerance

But we’ve been through all this before and humans have been tipping over statues, cancelling people and tearing out pages from books for centuries. If we’re to counter this illiberal editing urge we’ll have to make a determined effort this time to push the virtues of tolerance and the truth of L.P. Hartley’s fine first line in the novel, The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

One of own historically significant females, Evita Bezuidenhout, has suggested a legacy park for all the statues in a city ‘good and bad – because legacy is both.’ Maybe, just maybe, we can negotiate our way out of the usual destruction and division with a centrist policy.

In the unlikely event that we are allowed to revive tourism any time soon, we will need a couple of statues that will point to a somewhat more complex history than the reductionist version being punted by the ANC.

[Picture: Mike Von on Unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.