The Securitisation of Everything

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

The images of 22 year old Londoner Michael Abedowale, hands dripping with blood from his fatal attack on soldier Lee Rigby, created shock waves around the world, including in South Africa. His explanation for his actions, caught on camera, portrayed the attack as revenge for the excesses of British foreign policy in prosecuting the war against terror.

This incident, and the recent bombing of the Boston marathon, have given Britain and the United States (US) the justification to continue the war against terror, which had flagged somewhat after the Obama administration's extra-judicial execution of Osama bin Laden. But both governments face a problem: how do they continue the war when its enemies are so diffuse, and are residents and citizens of these very countries?

There are strong arguments that Al Qaeda never actually existed as a cohesive and structured organisation, with cells in different part of the world. Rather, both countries portrayed their primary enemy as such to allow them to pursue their own foreign policy interests through the prosecution of the war against terror.

In the process, both countries produced their own security threats, by creating more enemies than they could ever hope to deal with. The war against terror has, in reality, become a war against Islam as a religion, which has politicised and radicalised many Muslims. In effect, both countries’ foreign policies have heightened insecurity, creating a war without end that they cannot possibly hope to win, as its enemies are simply too numerous. It has been shown, for instance, that the invasion of Iraq actually increased terrorism.

The recent incidents also call into question the effectiveness of Obama’s new approach to prosecuting the war against terror, which shifted from invading and bombing other countries to targeted attacks on individuals. Drone attacks have killed many more people than their original targets, and the extra-judicial assassinations have fuelled resentment about the US being able, literally, to get away with murder.

But it is not just British and the US foreign policies that are at fault. The University of London’s Aaron Peters has noted, in relation to Britain, that the war against terror abroad has morphed into a war against the underclass domestically. The security apparatuses developed in response to the September 11 attacks is now being used to contain an increasingly restive working class, intent on resisting the dismantling of the liberal welfare state, the imposition of austerity measures, and the creation of conditions that will condemn more people to a lifetime of unemployment.

An increasingly militarised police force has expanded the range of activities considered to be crimes, often with the collusion of other aspects of the criminal justice system, to police this new social order. Pre-emptive policing, developed to contain gangs, is now being used to harass people guilty of the most minor infractions, and surveillance techniques are being used to secure public spaces.

These low-level forms of repression are creating their own domestic enemies too. Given that these policing practices are being rolled out largely in inner-city working class neighbourhoods, where many immigrants, black people and Muslims live, they have taken on a particular race and class content, and are bound to intensify the already existing levels of resentment created by US and British foreign policy in these neighbourhoods.

Unless the roots of the threats these countries face are confronted, the necessary lessons will not be learned, and other countries risk repeating their historical errors. The main lesson for South Africa is that if a ruling elite seeks to address problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality by securitising those problems, and then uses the newly-expanded security apparatuses to secure its interests at home and abroad, then it is setting itself up to fail.

When countries securitise everything, they resolve nothing. Securitisation gives the government hawks the justification to intervene in more and more areas of life, militarising society in the process, and criminalising perceived opponents on the flimsiest of grounds. The securitisation of social problems is, ultimately, unsustainable as even the hawks will not be able to contain the resentment that their policies spawn.

Furthermore, it is not a given that this resentment will coalesce into politically radical resistance movements, and the indiscriminate violence against civilians that characterises much terrorism is about as far away from radical politics as one can get.

There are signs that the over-breadth of South Africa's definition of national security, which was promoted by many progressives at the end of apartheid, is now being abused by the Zuma administration to protect its economic interests at home and abroad.

These progressives reasoned that the totality of factors that create human insecurity should be addressed, including poverty, unemployment and environmental degradation, to prevent a narrow focus on protecting the state and its interests. It was this understanding of national security that found its way into the South African constitution, which states that, ‘…[National security] must reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life’.

When social problems are framed as security problems, they inevitably invite intervention from the security services as lead agencies on national security matters, especially the intelligence services.

They then engage in a by-now familiar cycle. They securitise a social problem by identify it as an existential threat in need of security intervention. Then they implement emergency measures to remove this threat, which may include new rights-limiting laws or policies. They then normalise these measures as part of everyday life, allowing the security service to tighten their grip on society.

In reality, the expanded definition has led to the intelligence services becoming state watchdogs of society, intervening in political battles in the ruling party and beyond inappropriate ways. The police have, at times, interpreted their dual mandate of crime prevention and crime combatting as a mandate to engage in harassment and pre-emptive arrests of activists considered to be ‘troublemakers’, ostensibly to prevent more crimes from being committed.

The military's incursions into countries like Lesotho and, more recently, the Central African Republic, have also raised questions about whether their role has morphed from regional peacekeeping into acting as a watchdog of South African economic interests abroad. Unlike the US or Britain, South Africa does not have any major enemies at the moment, but if it continues on its current path, it will most surely create them.

Arguably, the progressives who ‘won’ the human security definition in the constitution were naïve. They did not foresee that, under a more authoritarian dispensation, the repressive apparatuses of the state would not use this definition to work in concert with its social welfare apparatuses to deliver a secure future for its citizens. Rather they would use it to expand their activities to the surveillance and criminalisation of perceived political opponents.

This expansion could happen because social problems had been conceptualised as security problems in the first place. In fact, it is now well recognised that the human security definition of national security is incoherent, un-implementable and even dangerous. Its proponents assumed that the state will remain neutral in the face of social conflict: a profound historical error that is coming back to bite them.

Political theorist Mark Neocleous has argued that the concept of national security is too ideologically loaded in favour of the state for it to be capable of a progressive reading. The quest for human liberation should not be cast in security terms at all; rather this quest requires an entirely different political language to describe it. His argument has great relevance for South Africa.

Written by: Jane Duncan

Picture credit: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

  • Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This article was published on the South African Civil Society Information Services website.