The challenge confronting people – and, to be honest, I am one of them – who are unsettled by the notion that the right to life is inseparable from the right to carry a deadly weapon (and, if necessary, to kill in self-defence) is unmistakably bound up in the contents of the Fin24 story on Friday, headlined, ‘Distell suffered R100m in damage to KZN depot, thanks “taxi partners” for protection’.

This news story has nothing at all to do with the gun debate, and everything to do with it.

The argument over the government’s controversial Firearms Control Amendment Bill, and especially the provision disallowing self-defence as a ground for citizens owning guns, had been proceeding hotly for some time in the weeks before Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment, but almost abstractly, as if what we were talking about were circumstances of crisis that somehow required imagining.

This is not universally true, of course; South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, and for some – farmers, for instance, residents of gang-plagued neighbourhoods in Cape Town, or Somali shop owners, to mention just three particularly vulnerable categories of citizens – self-defence can be and often is a matter of life or death.

But I suspect that in the mostly placid middle-class suburbs (like my own), the routines – the school run, the trip to the supermarket, meeting friends at the neighbourhood coffee shop, the morning jog, the weekend bike rides – contrived to lull what could probably be best described as the intelligentsia into thinking that their life was the normative standard, and that to even suggest that a good society such as the one they believe they occupy should contemplate allowing people to carry guns to protect themselves ranked almost as an affront, an impoliteness, an incomprehensible excess, and more of a danger than any it might be intended to address.

And then the mobs went on the rampage in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Put plainly, were it not for gun owners, the costs – conceivably both in lives and in livelihoods – would almost certainly have been higher.

Privatised policing

In that Fin24 story on Friday (which is actually nosed on the company’s ‘expecting strong profit growth for the year to end-June´), the dynamics now at play are conveyed in a way that suggests that privatised policing – or partnering with militias – is as ordinary a part of business as submitting a tax return.

‘We are deeply grateful to our supply chain and distribution teams,’ the company said, ‘as well as our security personnel and partners at the South African National Taxi Association (Santaco), who have worked tirelessly to protect our business.’ The report noted that ‘Santaco deployed members to protect shopping centres and other buildings during the unrest, and refused to transport protesters.’

Doubtless, we can be grateful for such displays of civic solidarity in the face of disorder.

But I see risks in these events that challenge both sides – the folly of denying vulnerable citizens the means to protect themselves and their families, and the folly of fostering conditions in which the dispassion and disinterested contemplation that steady the hand of justice under the rule of law are replaced by all that is impulsive, reactive and emotive in the undoubting urgency of vigilantism.

It will not have been lost on news audiences over the past two weeks that, while taxi associations were stepping up as good civic citizens in KZN and Gauteng, in Cape Town they were conducting a lethal and hugely disruptive war to which one report ascribes the ‘paralysis of Cape Town’s public transport’.

Cape Town remembers another bout of privatised law and order that went haywire.

Arising from popular frustration at ineffective state action against gangsterism and drug dealing, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) group was formed in 1996 to get the ball rolling.

Wikipedia draws on various sources to provide the following succinct summary: ‘PAGAD increasingly took matters into their own hands, believing the police were not taking enough action against gangs. Initially the community and police were hesitant to act against PAGAD activities, recognising the need for community action against crime in the gang-ridden communities of the Cape Flats… South Africa’s police quickly came to regard PAGAD as part of the problem rather than a partner in the fight against crime, and they were eventually designated a terrorist organization by the South African government.’

Urban terrorism

Over the next few years – though PAGAD’s direct involvement was never proved – Cape Town was subjected to frightening urban terrorism, including bombings (among the targets were the police, individual Muslims, synagogues, gay nightclubs, tourist attractions, and restaurants), and the murder of magistrate Pieter Theron (who was presiding in a case involving PAGAD members) in a drive-by shooting.

We should not lose sight of the danger inherent in accepting that ‘privatised’ violence may be used as a practical way to achieve an objective (safety, preservation of life, ridding society of an evil – like gangsterism and drug dealing – an end to looting), coupled as it often is with a moral conviction that retribution and punishment are deserved, and thus justified.

Equally, no South African, even those of us who don’t carry guns, can pretend innocence, as my colleague Gabriel Crouse recently pointed out. The unremarkable deployment of private security in every shopping precinct, every university campus, many suburbs and most workplaces means that even the most ardent anti-gun lobbyists are beneficiaries of a principle they avowedly object to.

Choosing where to stand, then, is not as easy as it might at first appear.

My colleagues – among them Terence Corrigan, Nicholas Lorimer and Ivo Vegter – have written extensively on wide-ranging aspects of the gun debate. And within the IRR itself, it continues to be a debate. (It is worth noting that detractors of the IRR – perhaps because they are blindly determined to doubt that we really are liberals – don’t appreciate the vigour of contention, or the tolerance of it, within the organisation over how liberty of the individual and equality before the law shape our positions, or our differences, on key questions of the day.)

Much of the debate about the Firearms Control Amendment Bill has focused on data, on the grounds that reason rather than sentiment must and can prevail, and that studying the statistics is a reliable place to start.

Unreliable self

I have found that reliable statistics – that is, statistics I can rely on – are virtually impossible to find. I need to qualify that; it’s not necessarily the integrity of this or that body of numbers that’s the problem. The problem is that, whatever the numbers are, I am still faced with my unreliable self, for I find myself leaning to numbers that reinforce my own opinion, and regarding with suspicion numbers that don’t. And it’s instinctive – I am sure for all of us – perhaps because we sense deep down that we can never be wholly certain of the integrity, the source, or the accuracy of whatever the statistics are, or be wholly certain of whether, in the absence of all sorts of other information, we can be entirely certain of, less grasp, their full meaning.

In a way – for my part – numbers are less of a problem; the problem for me is whether there’s a principle at stake, and whether or not there are limits to it.

I have long felt that the right to life does not automatically entail the right to kill in self-defence – any more than the right to justice entails the right to erect a gallows in the back garden – because I steel myself to trust the post-Enlightenment view that, as liberty is not a solitary condition, sustaining free, democratic societies in the modern age must depend on citizens ceding the monopoly of violence to the state.

The American-Palestinian intellectual (and insightful music critic) Edward Said once applied his own conception of the essential character of music-making – ‘voluntary submission to the ensemble’ – as an apt definition of constitutionalism.

This, surely, is the foundation of the good society: we confer (and contest) in determining how we are governed, we elect the governors (and replace them as we see fit) by honest means that all can trust, and, on those conditions, we submit to the law in adjudicating our differences and affirming our rights, and call on the law to protect our lives and our interests.

Not that it’s quite as straight-forward as that.

For the elegance of his prose alone, John Locke is worth consulting – but his ideas are also a considerable challenge to any attempt to simplify the gun debate.

‘That which threatens me’

Locke writes: ‘I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion….’

He goes on: ‘(Force), or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject. Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat; because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which, if lost, is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defence, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable. Want of a common judge with authority, puts all men in a state of nature: force without right, upon a man’s person, makes a state of war, both where there is, and is not, a common judge.’

His thinking has been lastingly persuasive, and though I wonder whether there is a clinching argument as to why we must be bound by the ideas of a thinker who died in 1704, I must acknowledge that I am fond of quoting John Milton’s defence of free speech dating to 1644, and so concede that there is no good reason to discount old ideas only because they are old.

To be sure, Locke is not to be discounted. Nevertheless, I remain persuaded that there is a kind of down payment required of individuals seeking to live in a society that guarantees their freedom by guaranteeing order based on assent, and rational, predictable and enforceable rules. To my mind, this civilising bargain can only be reliable, lasting or meaningful if the volunteers to the ensemble surrender the monopoly of force to the democratic state.

Proposition simply falls apart

But who can deny that this noble proposition simply falls apart if the bargain is not kept? And this, in July 2021, is the unhappy, but unignorable, condition South Africans now confront.  

Perhaps one of most remarkable statements on how things stand was made – in the midst of the shambles in the week of the recent mayhem – by President Cyril Ramaphosa himself.

Speaking to the camera, he acknowledged that ‘people are standing up not only to defend their own assets, but they are also defending democracy … because they can see this is an assault on the democratic situation that we have in our country. So they are standing up, and we applaud that. Our democratic state is what people are defending, as well as their assets. Yes, we could have acted quicker … but they are now joining hands with us.’

It is difficult to square these sentiments with his government’s proposed amendments to firearm legislation.

To be fair, he didn’t say that people should take up arms to conduct their defence of their assets and their democracy, but Ramaphosa’s statement is nevertheless an emphatic signal, and a signal that coincides with public certainty that the state is incapable of living up to its side of the civilising bargain in guaranteeing an application of force that is just and timely enough to assure citizens of their safety and their freedom.

In a certain light, it is of course commendable – both the actions of citizens, and the acknowledgement of their actions by the head of state. But the light in South Africa today is unforgiving, for it exposes the truth that citizens feel compelled to act because the state not only is failing to act, but cannot.

That’s not just a problem, it’s the problem.

If it doesn’t convince me of the virtue, as a condition of civilised life, of citizens having the right to inflict deadly force, I am equally convinced that the anti-gun lobby is mistaken to squander its efforts and resources on disarming a society that has been negligently exposed to risk, and its advocates must reckon with the harsh reality that the Firearms Control Amendment Bill is not the signpost to the good society that some make it out to be, but a cynical and even dangerous distraction from the serious work now needed if South Africa is to have any hope of ever reaching such a destination. 

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