On Tuesday, Free State farmers set a police van on fire and stormed the Senekal magistrate’s court to get to the cells where two people accused of killing a farm manager were being held.
The police took no action.
“I want police to treat me like they treat a white man.” This was one wry comment from the Mail & Guardian’s diary meeting, where we were discussing what we should say about the violence in Senekal.
That people have a right to protest against the failure of the state to create a safe environment for all is not in doubt. The levels of violence in South Africa attest to a failure by all of us to diagnose the real causes and to work on ourselves. The lack of consequences for violence speaks to a failure of the state.
The fury shown by the mob of farmers is the same as that of other people around this country where neighbours and family members have been murdered.
But the police’s response to the Senekal protest was different. In that corner of the Free State, the police decided to defuse the situation and not use force because that could have led to more violence. It chose instead to exercise restraint and patience, and then arrest a man suspected of burning state property after the fact.
It was a good move. Tactical and strategic. If only it was also standard practice for handling protesters who are not white South African farmers.
We are used to the police using violence to break up protests. Our recent history is littered with bodies — from police using shotguns and live ammunition on miners in Marikana to beating people to death during the Covid lockdown.
After the murder of 34 people outside Lonmin, there were promises that the police would do better. Live rounds would be replaced by a police service that exists to work with and for people.
Much like the United States, where people have called for the police to be defunded so the focus can be on addressing the social reasons for crime, moments of crisis can be used to look in the mirror and change.
But the default response from our “force” — as Police Minister Bheki Cele insists on calling the police service — is to dominate the situation and hurt people who break the law.
Senekal was different. The people breaking the law were white. No “dominating” action was taken.
A quarter of a decade after democratic elections signified we are all equal, the country remains deeply racist. And our institutions continue to internalise and reflect this racism.
If the police treat white men as the gold standard of how protesters should be treated, then we should expect that in an equal society we would all be treated like white men.