After visiting the country for two months last year, I decided to move to Cape Town, South Africa after completing my Masters at The New School. One of the reasons I decided to make this international move was that it was easy for me to see how the struggle for change within Black and Brown communities in the States and the struggle for true freedom here in South Africa are so connected. I marveled at the similarities of experience. While people of color may be in very different lanes economically, the likeness between the two countries comes from a close-knit beginning. The colonization of both Cape Town and New York began with the Dutch East India Company settlements only 25 years apart. Beyond this, the sharing of ideas regarding discrimination and subjugation between the South Africa and the United States – from business development to urban planning to laws – has been historically commonplace. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960 in the United States and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa along with the historical impact of the Harlem Renaissance and Négritude Movement in Francophone Africa helped produce the work of notable change-makers like Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele and Barney Pityana. Even the marriage between Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael was symbolic of the synergy between the two countries and the continuing feelings of discontent caused by racial injustice. Following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and the liberation of South Africa from apartheid rule, people from both sides seem to forget that everything is not rainbows and sunshine and that there is still a need for further reform.
Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old boy who was gunned down by two police officers on March 9, 2013 has led to massive protests in the streets of Brooklyn. These protests come from a community that has long withstood police tactics that make it procedure to harass with policies like stop-and-frisk and martial law. Furthermore, shootings like this indicate the New York Police Department endorses the suspension of reasonable doubt and replace it with the assumption of guilt when it comes to young men of color. In South Africa, a country still reeling from the effects of minority rule and oppressive state-sanctioned discrimination, xenophobia towards immigrants from other African nations–whom they fear are stealing jobs and resources (sound familiar?)–is openly expressed. On Febraury 27, 2013, Mido Macia, a Mozambican immigrant, was accosted by the police in the Daveyton township of Guateng for parking on the wrong side of the road. An altercation ensued, and while the details of that altercation are unclear, Macia was eventually handcuffed to the back of a police van and dragged through the street to the precinct, where he died from internal bleeding related his to injuries. He was 27 years old.
The common thread linking these two stories is the institutionalized fear of the “other.” The policing of Black and Brown bodies in the United States is consistent with racial tactics that aim to keep communities of color “in check,” perpetuating ideas about violence and other negative stereotypes about what it means to be Black, male or both. We’ve seen it before with people like Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. Police shoot to kill under an assumed threat of imagined violence of young black men and validate the use of excessive force to ensure “public safety.” In South Africa, the police force has long been deemed inefficient and abusive, the result of power politics within a government and country where imagining the “other” as Black South Africans has shifted to Black people from other places. Xenophobia in South Africa runs rampant in poorer areas where shops owned by foreigners are often burned and looted and people are chased out of communities in the name of “justice.” In the graphic video of Macia’s dragging, you can hear the police officers hurl xenophobic insults at the man as he is handcuffed to the back of the van.
On a personal note, the cases of both Kimani Gray and Mido Macia have affected me. I was 19 when I was stopped and frisked for the first time, coming home late from work at a retail job and apparently looking suspicious. My two nephews, aged 12 and 13, have already begun to be aware of their race, having been harassed repeatedly by the police on their way home after school-even while they’re wearing their school uniform and with other children. My position as an American living in South Africa has made the case of Mido Macia all the more relevant. While I have generally been received well, my position as the other is brought to the surface by anyone who hears my accent. Immediately assumptions are made that I agree with American foreign policy in Africa, that I am interested in sexual romps with a “real African” or that I have no idea what real struggle is because shows like Love and Hip Hop and Real Housewives of Atlanta inspire imaginations that racism doesn’t happen. While I don’t feel like I am at risk for being dragged behind a police car, there are other things for me to be wary about and my Americaness–depending on context-can be viewed as either a blessing or curse.
The anger felt by South Africans following the death of Mido Macia is almost standard; there has always been a strong culture of protest in regards to what is unanimously viewed as injustice and with larger numbers of people able to engage with the incident through social media and technology, mobilization was almost instantaneous. I’ve found myself admiring the South African protest culture, especially given the perception of America as a place where racial and social equality mythical theories rather than tangible real-life experiences. Following the end of apartheid, the idea that people are legally equal and free has left a lot of work to be done to ensure that these freedoms are realized, and almost 20 years later people do not hesitate to take to the streets if it is deemed necessary.
The protests that have taken place in Brooklyn since Kimani Gray’s death have led to martial law, police brutality and countless arrests but I must say that I have never been more proud of my hometown for taking to the street to say that enough is enough. We have to demand the safety of our young men and women from state-sanctioned violence within communities of color. While I am thousands of miles away, my heart goes out to the Gray family and I pray for the safety of all those who have taken to the streets to demand that the police be held accountable. These actions are so important for kids like my nephews and other young men and women of color who deal with police harassment. For us to feel safe from those who have been given the power to protect us is so important. Instead, these people have instilled us with fear and are reinforcing the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies.
by Folashade Kornegay