Violence in South Africa: from the classroom to Parliament

JOHANNESBURG - The boy in school uniform, during a confrontation with a teacher seated at her desk at the front of the classroom, a blackboard filled with chalk markings, throws the contents of the bottle in his hand onto her. 

What ensues in the video, one of several which have circulated on social and in news media over the last few years, is only too familiar and debasing.

Teachers tell of such events in their classrooms more often than is comforting.

Pupils, of course, have similar stories of being on the receiving end of such.

What was striking while watching the video footage was not so much the primary actors, but the rest of those pupils, holding up their mobile devices, recording the events, many cheering and jeering.

It put me in mind of the story of Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder outside her New York apartment in the 1960s set in motion research projects to explain the bystander effect.

Why did no one intervene, psychologists and sociologists wanted to know? What was it about the location and context which explained that despite witnessing the event in a variety of ways, no one did anything to intervene?

Similarly, one can ask of the many pupils and other witnesses who film these classroom and school-ground assaults: why not intervene, either directly or indirectly, by calling for help?

But then, on 6 November 2018, two events in South Africa’s National Assembly mirrored the events we see in the violence in our schools. As with the outrageous incidents in our schools, so with the parliamentary scenes: we are no longer just encountering relying on eye-witness testimony in print or recounted later; we are now confronted with these scenes of violence – verbal and physical – mediated by contemporary technology, and in the case of parliament, in ‘real time’.

And the connection between the two scenes – what we see happening in many of our schools, and what we saw in parliament on that November afternoon when the President of the Republic of South Africa was meant to be held to account to the people’s elected representatives, the 400 ‘honourable’ Members of Parliament who make up the National Assembly – extends beyond their mediation via screens.

At some deeper level, they are manifestations of the same underlying problems in our polity.

One knows South Africa has unacceptable levels of violence: the evidence confronts us not just in news media headlines and reports, but in the intimate details of the lives of the nearly 58-million people who live and die here.

Our society is blighted by interpersonal violence – the war against women and children, against the poor, but also the unacceptably high levels of interpersonal violence which range from people hurling racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic and other forms of hate speech at one another every day through battery and assault to murder. There is and has long been something rotten in the State of South Africa.

Many of us wrestle with how to engage productively with this problem and its consequences, struggling to work back to root causes and not just deal with symptoms.

However, when the people’s elected representatives, those MPs who are paid more than R1 million each, cannot have rational debate without resorting to verbal abuse of another or engage in physical violence, what hope?

Parliament is, after all, also a classroom, where much is learned about what is acceptable, what can be got away with, and what can be encouraged.

As in that Northern Cape classroom, where onlookers cheered and jeered, so in the National Assembly on the debasing Tuesday afternoon in November 2018: a certain amount of Schadenfreude from those observing the brawl (for such it was) which at first threatened between the two main opposition parties, and then the actual brawl which ensued between members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and AgangSA MP Andries Tlouamma.

Each MP is paid more than R1-million per year of South Africans’ tax money.

Their resort to name-calling and physical violence (this is not the first time matters have come to fisticuffs and worse inside and outside the Houses of Parliament – is not funny; it never was.

It is deeply shameful, debasing, and thoroughly abhorrent.

This violence comes at our expense.

It is not comedy, though many South Africans treat it as such in their attempt, one imagines, to suppress their anxiety at the all-too-familiar spectacle playing out before them, and which they know comes at their expense, both literally and figuratively.

South Africans who profess to be committed to building a non-violent society must condemn these execrable and deeply shaming events in Parliament.

One knows that the term is overused these days, but it seems to exemplify the ‘toxic masculinity’ many critics suggest is at the heart of so many problems which plague the post-millennial post-apartheid lives of millions, and that plays itself out across this country everyday.

We dare not and must never normalise or explain it away. It must be condemned in the most insistent terms, and those complicit with and implicated must be held accountable for their actions, just as we insist that violent pupils and teachers be held to account.

If we are expected to be outraged by the assaults in schools on pupils and teachers, or the road rage incidents and common assaults that happen every day across this country, we should condemn these violent scenes in the national legislature as unequivocally.

The conduct of those MPs engage in the brawl, and those who cheered it on or witnessed it with glee because ‘it’s not our team’ was quite the opposite of ‘honourable’. 

The shame of it! And all nearly 58-million of us literally pay for this spectacle.

There should have been an immediate apology to all South Africans issued by all parties in Parliament; they know we watch them, and so their conduct is in some senses always a performance for our delectation. We must insist that we neither enjoy nor condone this sort of behaviour. 

If we don’t, we must acknowledge that we are engendering a society in which violence has become normalised, unworthy of outrage, and the poisonous gas we breathe quotidian, mistaken for fresh air. There could have been an immediate on-air statement from the presiding officer to the people in whose name all the events in the National Assembly are held: a public brawl in the ‘hallowed’ chamber is no small incident. 

Have we been so dehumanised that we do not even think we deserve at least that for the hundreds of millions we pay them?

What happens to ordinary South Africans who engage in brawls in their place of employment? They are suspended, their pay is docked, or they are summarily dismissed.

Many South Africans can attest to such experiences. Why are the people’s servants in the National Assembly, who work for us, those MPs caught on live television cameras doing the same thing in Parliament, not subjected to the same consequences? Or will we be treated to the usual apologia and blame-shifting?

And why was the Serjeant-at-Arms so slow in responding to the call from Thoko Didiza to intervene? Was the official on a comfort or tea break? 

How many calls did the presiding officer have to make? It reminds one of that call by the senior South African Revenue Services employee to the South African Police emergency services about being held captive in the building, and the distressingly casual and dismissive responses by the police official. Intervention, like justice, millions of South Africans can attest, creeps slowly all too often.

Violent rhetoric, the rhetoric of violence, and brutality: to quote E.M. 

Foster, ‘only connect’. Parliament must have vigorous and rigorous, sometimes even unpleasant debate, but violence has no place in the politics of a post-conflict polity like South Africa.

Given the past many of us, some even in that very same Parliament, have barely survived, it is unacceptable. We cannot tolerate this – recall how long it took for a deputy minister caught on camera assaulting women to resign from his post, and the apologia offered in his defence by among others even the president of the Women’s League of South Africa’s largest political party. We deserve better.

Earlier in that same session a different symptom of that same investment in ‘toxic masculinity’ –shorthand for deeply damaged and damaging performances of manhood as the expression of violence and violation, of the exercise of power whether through humiliating and belittling words and gestures, or physical brutality – was spectacularly performed for the South African public gaze.

In what seemed at first a jest by the EFF MP Ndlozi to Cyril Ramaphosa about Minister Gigaba’s embarrassing so-called ‘sex tape’, the minister responded with a raised pinkie. Is what we pay these men for?

More than R1-million and R2-million of ordinary people’s tax money for each, to crack jokes about penis size in Parliament? T

hat’s more than R3-million of our tax money a year in a recession economy where pensioners get less than R20 000 per year? This is not a joke; it is not even a tragedy; it is debasing farce.

In this current existential crisis in the South African polity, the people don’t need another bathetic and expensive comedy show to amuse ourselves to political death, pace Neil Postman.

In the most unequal society blighted by femicidal and hyper-masculine violence, it is past time for all political parties to check their deployees.

And it is also past time for South Africans to ‘only connect’: the link between the everyday violence in our private and public places is not caused by nor do they cause the violence we see from our public officials, whether physically assaulting a journalist or women in a pub, or shouting deplorable insults at one another in supermarkets or across the floor of the National Assembly.

These are habits which we have to unlearn. We should be able to resolve our differences with greater reliance on rational debate, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and here Parliament, with its rules and codes of conduct, ought to lead.

Given the events of the afternoon of 6 November 2018, this is not the case.

There is indeed a place for the satirical in a polity pockmarked by the problems South Africa is dealing with right now — parliamentary politics paid for by taxpayers is not the best locale.

It comes across as contempt for the poor majority, a joke at their expense.

More than R1-million per MP ought to secure better service from those who speak in our name, on our behalf, and only at our behest.

They are our servants, after all. All of us pay them.

They owe us more, all of us.

- Angelo Fick is the Director of Research at ASRI

House is suspended for five minutes after actual fight breaks out between EFF MPs and Agang MP. Courtesy #DStv403.