For those who are voiceless, vulnerable and ignored, Operation Dudula and other self-proclaimed vigilante groups offer a collective that says factually, where the government has betrayed you, I stand with you, writes Joy Owen.
How do you give meaning to a social movement or a social organization like Operation Dudula?
I am uneasy to comment on its existence, because the reasons for its existence are multiple. These reasons are rooted in historical roots, including slavery, colonial oppression and apartheid in South Africa, on the continent and around the world.
The reasons for its existence also lie at this very moment – ravaged by a socio-political reality that suggests that our state is just spinning, increasing inequality, precariousness and the external global context that affects us all. For example – the war against the Ukrainian people; the ongoing mutilations happening elsewhere – like the Congo, Sudan, the Palestinian Territories and even the United States, the beacon of Western wealth and excess.
The fact that the world is structured by racial capitalism, intersectional oppressions and even hatred is often overlooked in our discussions of crime, violence and continuing injustice in South Africa. This oversight fuels the idea that South Africa is exceptional in its response to human degradation and humiliation over the centuries.
I’ve got your back
For those who are voiceless, vulnerable, and ignored, Operation Dudula and other self-proclaimed vigilante groups offer a collective that says factually, where the government has betrayed you, I stand with you. How intoxicating it must be to hear that someone will protect you in the face of rising poverty, unemployment and a widespread lack of care for the “less” among us.
READ | Researcher reveals some of the key elements behind xenophobia in South Africa
In a short time, what Nhlanhla Dlamini, the voice of Operation Dudula, has demonstrated is that South Africans must create mass movements in order to be heard by those who govern – the state. That the elected leaders we continue to put in power, whether by voting, spoiling our ballots or not showing up at the polls, are not actually listening, and as such we need to create movements that not only threaten non-nationals, but the state as well.
As Martin Luther King observed:
It is not enough for me to come before you tonight and condemn the riots. It would be morally irresponsible of me to do this without, at the same time, denouncing the contingent and intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel they have no alternative but to engage in violent rebellions for attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard of.
The nature of our history, the present moment and the need for all South Africans, especially the black working class and unemployed, to feel included in this country’s social compact has created a breeding ground for violent forms of disruption. . Disruptions are meant to catalyze change, change that includes rather than excludes. If you have been excluded from the riches of your country, from the joys of the earth, from expressing yourself through language, from the fruits of your labor, would you not join in a violent means of retribution, especially when your humanity does not engender a response of care, appreciation and love? Wouldn’t you also want, having nothing to lose, to spoil what others love? Wouldn’t you be ready to die, because dying a slow death is more painful than dying today, if need be?
Yet this is only part of South Africa’s complex crime story. And one story alone, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned, is not conducive to truth or finding solutions.
Allow me to play devil’s advocate. According to statistics released on Monday, the unemployment rate in South Africa is 34.5%; and the youth unemployment rate is 63.9%. Have you wondered, given these statistics, why the crime rate is not higher? We have one policeman for every 413 civilians. In a country of 59 million people, what does that mean exactly?
The majority of those living in South Africa are not commit crimes, even though we recognize that crimes are under-reported in South Africa; even if we understand that we will never have enough police officers to prevent crime. Think about it.
READ | Tinyiko Maluleke: Let’s talk jobs, fellow minister
Do we understand that most of those residing in South Africa are law-abiding citizens? Do we understand that daily, men and women make the conscious choice not to steal from the other? They consciously choose not to extort money, or pay bribes, or speed on roads, or drive other people away, or sexually assault other people. Do we recognize the power of this silent majority, going about their daily business, living with a personal code of ethics so ingrained that it will not harm others? Have we considered them or are we choosing to ignore their existence because they are silent? Who is the most popular? And why?
A wider ecology
As an anthropologist, I work in the smallest details of everyday life. Through my discipline, I am tasked with understanding how the dance between an individual and the larger society or societies of which they are a part constructs each other. How the web of life, of which you and I are an intricate part, lifts each time an individual or individuals pull at one end or at the center.
We are part of a larger ecology that is sensitive to each other. And to understand the complexity of crime, we need to consider the system, not just its parts. If we do, wisdom might prevail as we accept that we are all part of a societal problem and, by implication, the solution we expect. So when you ask me, ‘who is responsible for the crime in South Africa?’ I would tell you all. We are responsible for containing it, eradicating it and removing it. We are also responsible for supporting, maintaining and incubating it.
READ | OPINION: Tawanda Matema: Populism and voting – Don’t blame migrants for the country’s misfortunes
Whose responsibility then is to “fight” the crime? Yours and mine. How? We must build the social pact. We need to recognize the value and strength that exists in our co-relationship. Let us recognize our responsibility to each other. Understanding power dynamics and how a collective bottom-up response can manifest a different reality – Operation Dudula is one example. Yes. But the same goes for other community organizations such as Equal Education, and more specifically “The Gift of the Givers”. There are also other social links that are not broadcast; like those between African migrant and South African citizen; where mutual aid is a norm, regardless of race, gender, age or nationality.
Multidimensional and multidimensional approach
In short, any solution to crime in South Africa will have to be multifaceted, multi-pronged and holistic.
So yes, I too am advocating that we must eradicate poverty and ensure food security and active engagement in livelihoods that guarantee our collective well-being. And yes, we must also do the hard work to heal the individual and collective psyche. These conversations need the contribution of psychologists, social workers, priests, doctors and healers unsung among us. Because what also afflicts us is a psychic wound which originates in the past and which is healed and constantly opened in our present.
You cannot heal what ails the country without a thorough examination of the minds of South Africans, the minds of continental Africans and citizens of the world. We externalize trauma and violent experiences to alleviate our collective suffering. We don’t know how to heal effectively without harming others, both large and small.
READ | Mmusi Maimane: The most beautiful are born – South Africa’s best years are yet to come
But we also have authentic examples and embodiments of love, freedom and truth.
Leaders and healers live among us, quietly working to hold South Africa together. They feed the hungry; they take care of the children of single working mothers or fathers. They create community gardens in schools, investing time and energy. They share information about a potential job, “putting a kind word” for the young man down the street. They are scrambling to create viable and successful businesses that will support the livelihood of three or four families. They stand up for someone who is degraded or bullied. They talk to an armed man. They make their voices heard by committing to collective well-being. They hold each other accountable on a daily basis. With no police in sight. Do we count them? They may be silent, but they are the majority in this country. And they are the ones who give me hope.
– Joy Owen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Free State.