Zuma leading us down a crimson path to tragedy

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

The glitzy opening of Parliament belied the reality of mounting tensions and popular protests, writes Richard Pithouse.

The Public discussion around the pageantry at the annual opening of Parliament often treats the event more like the Oscars than a serious attempt to take some measure of where we are as a country. It is frequently received as if the dignity of the nation is invested in the quality of the spectacle produced by this performance of elite power.

This year, the discussion about how people looked and dressed took a particularly cruel turn. But Jacob Zuma came out of the usual analysis of how the president performed as a speaker in Parliament better than in previous years. The red carpet - used to mark the arrival of celebrities, politicians and royalty at important events - first appears in the play Agamemnon, written by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Agamemnon, a king, returns from war, and his wife commands her maidens to "strew the ground before his feet with tapestries" to create "a crimson path" for the king. The king had sacrificed his daughter to the gods so that their favour would enable his ships to sail to the enemy. The crimson path, usually thought to symbolise blood, turns out to mark the king's own guilt and his own imminent doom. After he walks the crimson path, his wife kills him, off stage, with three blows from an axe.

Last week, off stage, and far from the glamour and petty dramas enacted on the parliamentary red carpet, another kind of crimson path was being laid out. Both popular protest and state violence have reached levels not seen since the 1980s. There is a demand - issued from below and from the margins long before the rich men in red berets decided to embrace it - that insists that the time has come to redeem the people sacrificed so the ANC could return from their exile, from their failed war, with a victory of sorts.

In last month, at least nine people were killed by the police in protest action. A 10th person killed in a protest was said to have died at the hands of ANC supporters. There was a six-year lull in police killings in protests after apartheid, and a 10-year lull in mass popular protest. But it could be argued that, while the sequence of popular urban protest that began in Soweto in 1976 has certainly mutated, it has not yet been concluded. For some of us, the struggle continues.

We all know the police, and other state armed forces, routinely harass, torture and murder certain kinds of people with impunity. Sex workers, migrants, gay people and poor people are often treated with contempt and subjected to violence and extortion by the police.

Last year, we watched the police drag Mido Macia behind a police van, before they beat him to death in the holding cells. For a longtime, political violence at the hands of the police was largely perpetrated outside the elite public sphere on the bodies of people whose equal humanity remains, at best, in question by much of the media, civil society and the academy. But in 2011 we watched the police kill Andries Tatane on the television news.

The next year we watched the police murder 34 striking miners. These events have moved us to the point where someone murdered by the police in a protest is now likely to be named in press reports, and perhaps even have an article or two dedicated to their life and how they were murdered. Local responses to police violence are becoming more vigorous and have, on occasion, included counter-attacks on the police.

But our society, as a whole, continues as if the now-routine recourse to murder by the state to contain popular dissent is part of the off-stage background hum to social life, rather than a crisis at the heart of the social order. In the elite public sphere, we are far more likely to put the Secrecy Bill, e-tolls or rhinos at the centre of our collective concerns than the accumulation of bodies at the hands of the state.

The logic that enables this to continue is aversion of the same logic central to colonialism and apartheid - the logic of a graduated humanity. The fact that spaces of power have been opened, albeit it imperfectly, to all those that can afford access to them has not changed the fact that some people's lives count for much less than the lives of others.

There is a tacit assumption that millions of people should be consigned to lives that are both separate and unequal. There is also a widespread assumption that a refusal to accept this is perverse, criminal and should be crushed. A recent newspaper editorial throws around words like "hooligans", "thugs" and "anarchy", moves from the entirely fantastical assumption that rights protected in the constitution actually exist for all of us in practice, and poses the destruction of property by protesters as a threat to the "rule of law" without once alluding to the fact that the state is using murder as a form of social control.

If the ANC took the lives of people who are poor and black seriously, and if they took democracy seriously, they would not have had the audacity to have run the opening of Parliament as a celebration at a time of rampant levels of popular protest and state repression.

Zuma told us that "the democratic government supports the right of citizens to express themselves" when it plainly does not. If we, as a society, took the lives of people who are poor and black seriously, we would not have tolerated the presentation of the politician as celebrity - and the more or less absolute separation between the political, as a space of elite power and glamorous spectacle, and the political as a space of escalating desperation and brutality.

The blind flurry around the crimson path leading into Parliament is, indeed, a sad affair under the stars. And if the ancient symbol of the crimson path still speaks to us about the hubris of power, about the price that must be paid for injustice, we'd be unwise to assume that it leads to the sort of easy resolution favoured in the happy endings scripted by Hollywood, rather than the hard-won lessons of tragedy favoured by Aeschylus.

Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was first published on the SA Civil Society Mfonnation Service website at www.sacsis.org.za MURDER BY THE STATE TO DEAL WITH POPULAR DISSENT IS SEEN ASA NORMAL PART OF LIFE'

Article Source: CAPE ARGUS