Black Lives Should Matter by Mandy Tomson


The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is gaining increasing momentum and interracial support as Americans finally confront the toxic mix of black poverty, police officers’ racial paranoia, and the indisputable fact that black men are far more likely to die during an interaction with the police than whites.

Previously, many questioned the often hostile, uncooperative behaviour of the young black men involved. Why didn’t he just put his hands up when asked? Why didn’t he stop running? Why didn’t he stop advancing on the police? Why didn’t he just do as he was told and litigate the details later? Two recent cases point to the vulnerability of black American men regardless of what they do.

Philando Castile did everything by the book. When the police pulled him over for a broken tail light, he immediately complied. He behaved politely, showed his hands and explained to the police officer that he had a gun along with a license to carry said gun. Clearly, he wasn’t planning to shoot it out with the cops otherwise he wouldn’t have let them know in advance that he had a gun. The cop asked him for his driver’s license and he reached for it and was executed in front of his girlfriend and child.

His girlfriend who was simply a passenger and had done absolutely nothing wrong was handcuffed and taken to the police station. On what grounds?

A black behavioural therapist trying to rein in his errant (white) autistic patient lies in the street, legs apart and hands in the air, while his patient sits muttering and playing with a toy truck.

The black man shouts to the police that he is a therapist and his patient has no gun and is simply playing with a toy truck. Incredibly, a police officer shoots him in the leg. The victim says, “why did you shoot me?!” The white cop says, “I don’t know!”

Unfortunately, both victims overestimated the rationality of the police officers and underestimated their instinctive racial paranoia.

So far, most of the proposed solutions involve more detailed use-of-force guidelines. However, the existing ones have already become a reliable shield behind which police get away with murder.

While living in Los Angeles in the 1990s and early 2000s, I recall the case of a tiny, homeless, demented 80-year-old black woman who stood outside a supermarket, waving a screwdriver and ranting incoherently. (There is a disproportionately large percentage of homeless people in Southern California by virtue of the temperate weather – it is far easier to survive winter there than in the icy, snowy climes of the East Coast. Most of the homeless are mentally ill and/or substance abusers and/or Vietnam vets). A bunch of burly cops arrived and apparently could think of no way to resolve the situation except by pumping this tiny, fragile old lady full of bullets – ultimately and incredibly, ruled “a justifiable homicide” on account of her “brandishing a deadly weapon” which caused them to “fear for their lives.” Since they met the written use-of-force guidelines, they were acquitted.

If these police officers were at a family barbecue and their demented great-grandmother picked up a knife and waved it around, you can bet the relatives would find a way to resolve the situation without opening fire. “Hey, you distract her from the front, and I’ll grab her from behind…” No one would say, “Let me go inside the house, get my gun and shoot her.”

These elaborately technical use-of-force guidelines have eliminated the umbrella of context and commonsense and allowed police officers to get away with murdering black people across the United States.

The black community needs to take some responsibility for not cooperating with the police: having lived for many years in a predominantly black Los Angeles neighbourhood controlled by the Shoreline Crips, I can testify that in my gang- and drug-infested neighbourhood, people would mourn their loved ones at funerals, knowing full well the identity of the killers, but refuse to say who did it; this, in turn, fuelled anger and resentment within the local police force who felt their attempts to secure justice for the victims were continually frustrated by the victims’ own loved ones. However, the police need to take responsibility for being paranoid and trigger-happy under any and all circumstances that involve black men no matter what the context, creating distrust in the very communities they are trying to serve.

What the Black Lives Matter movement still needs to address is the prosecutorial dimension of this problem which is far more sinister and impactful than any encounter in the streets: after all, it isn’t trigger-happy patrol officers who determine someone’s prison sentence. A white woman holds her estranged husband hostage for hours, shoots five times and hits him three times, and serves four years; a black woman in Florida fires a warning shot in a confrontation with her estranged, abusive partner and gets 20 years for endangering her children who could have been injured (but weren’t).

American prosecutors routinely seek maximum charges and sentences for black defendants, especially those whose limited financial resources force them to depend on an overworked public defender for their legal representation. (Even middle-class Americans would not be able to afford a private lawyer for a criminal defence that would cost well over $100 000 – approximately R1.4 million – without going bankrupt). The racist application of the law results in the disproportionately long-term imprisonment of millions of black people, aided by drug laws from Ronald Reagan’s presidency that punish possession of crack (cooked cocaine, mostly used by poor people) with far heavier sentences than possession of powder cocaine (used mainly by white yuppies). Prosecutors also routinely use taxpayer money to resist DNA tests in older cases that could exonerate convicts. Why are they so afraid of scientific evidence if they believe the convictions were justified?

America has only begun to scratch the surface of these problems that have festered for generations. However, more use-of-force guidelines are definitely not the answer unless they specifically bow to commonsense and context.

What about black lives on our continent? Every day, black defendants show up in South African courts with bruises, cuts and assorted injuries from being assaulted by police officers who simply deny the accusations. Those arrested cannot prove which police officers assaulted them and so nothing happens. This problem could be solved by placing CCTV in every cell and interrogation room but nothing is done. Nevertheless, these South African accused criminals are lucky by African standards – at least they make it to court: across the continent, detainees simply disappear, their mutilated bodies occasionally discovered weeks later. There is little to zero accountability.

As Zimbabweans rise up against Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule, our television screens are filled with images of police officers dragging citizens out of their homes and beating them senseless.

As noted by South African journalist and author, Sandile Memela: “When a black man violates the rights of another black man, nobody cares. It happens so often that it has become a way of life. But when a white man violates a black man, brouhaha breaks out.”

The incompetence of the South African police force combined with the willingness of magistrates and judges to grant bail have depleted faith in the criminal justice system. Vigilante mob violence in South Africa has become informal sharia law – so routine that it doesn’t even make the front pages: black South Africans brutally execute their own on the basis of rumour, often with the complicit passivity of the police. If a mob of white South Africans killed a black South African, it would be front-page news, police officers would suddenly experience an attack of diligence and arrests would be made amid a furore about the need to eliminate racism.

Why is black-on-black slavery, exploitation, torture and oppression in Africa routinely accepted amid an inordinate focus on crimes and exploitation committed by whites?

The legacy of European colonialism and South Africa’s apartheid policy understandably generated a suspicious focus on the conduct and motives of Western nations and whites – unfortunately to the exclusion of more relevant contemporary realities. White people constitute approximately 9% of South Africa’s population and 1% of Africa’s population: they punch above their weight economically on account of the legacy of privilege bestowed on them by colonialism and apartheid, but they hold no political power and no longer control the fate of African countries, so fixating on them does little to improve the quality of life on our beloved continent.

In South Africa which has the continent’s largest number of whites, the rising level of frustration with poverty and crime is expressing itself in irrational, often racially charged tangents that can only poison the country further backward.

Whites are now feeling targeted by the ruling African National Congress which blames apartheid for the nation’s persistent racial and class inequality rather than focusing on its own failures and what is possible in the here and now. Racist whites, drowning in media reports about corruption and assorted chicanery, cry “I told you blacks can't run the country,” and some react with defiantly vile outbursts on social media, while progressive whites feel helpless to positively influence the outcome of events.

Instead of focusing on the thieves in government who are stealing their futures, we are now seeing an obsessive, militant focus on “whiteness” and the symbols of colonialism and apartheid among black “born-free” university students. Black South African students are focusing their energy and militancy on demanding the removal of statues of dead white racists and land thieves which will have zero impact on the quality of African lives in the 21st century; they also want free tertiary education, despite the massive deficiencies in South Africa’s basic education system which is supposed to serve everyone – not just those bright enough to get into university.

University of Cape Town professor of sociology, Xolela Mangcu, recounted his acute embarrassment at participating on a panel with progressive visiting academics from the University of California, Berkeley. Bullying black students physically got in his face and “hurled insults at the panellists as white people who were there to tell black people what to do.”

A black student leader appearing on Judge Dennis Davis’ television show, “Judge for Yourself,” sanctimoniously announced that she rejected “whiteness in all its forms.” Apparently, all white people are essentially the same – innately privileged, racist and inherently incapable of progressive thought and action. This assertion is reiterated by intellectually confused, guilt-stricken whites like writer Gillian Schutte who opines that white babies are racist in utero.

Of course apartheid gave white people privileges: that was its raison d’ètre. It was the world’s biggest affirmative-action program for whites who were so “superior” that they needed whole professions reserved for them to ensure their economic success. However, it is tragic to see black university students favour reactive bigotry as some sort of solution to the irritating, continued existence of white South Africans and their inherited privilege.

Bigotry is a mode of reasoning:  whether it is racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, zenophobia or tribalism, it involves grouping millions of people together based on one common feature – skin colour, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, clan or tribe – and attributing a handful of common negative characteristics to them. It is innately dehumanising because individual identity, values and character simply don’t matter. Any philosophy that is premised on bigotry is a legacy of demented, irrational Europeans from centuries past. While racists fixate on skin colour, they could just as easily have chosen eye colour or nose size as anti-Semites have done with Jews for thousands of years.

Edouard Drumont, the late 19th Century, French anti-Semite described Jews as follows: “That notorious hooked nose, the blinking eyes, the clenched teeth, the jug ears, the nails cut square instead of rounded to an almond shape! The upper body is too long, Jews have flat feet, round knees, extraordinarily jutting ankles, and offer the soft, limp hand of a hypocrite and traitor. They often have one arm shorter than the other… [They have] a disagreeable aroma… which is an indication of their race and helps them recognise each other…”

It is easy to recognise the absurdity of bigotry when it is directly expressed. However, reactive anti-white racists use history to justify their stereotypes rather than direct conclusions about the innate evil of pale pigmentation. The results are just as irrational. Reactive anti-white racism pairs a Jew like me with the neo-Nazis who would like to see me exterminated; it puts the late, Jewish liberation struggle veteran Joe Slovo and neo-Nazi racist Eugene Terreblanche in the same box – all because of shared pigmentation. Anti-white bigotry reflects one of the negative legacies of colonialism – namely, a defensive refusal to address the reality that black Africans are mostly exploited, abused and killed by other black Africans. This is simply a reflection of numbers. Blacks are a majority so of course they will run governments on the continent and will suffer more at the hands of each other than at the hands of racial minorities. This does not make such suffering any more acceptable. It is of no comfort to a black African to be exploited by a fellow black African; it is of no solace to grieving relatives that at least their loved one was tortured and killed by a member of their own race and nationality.

The failure to hold black Africans accountable for crimes they commit against their own marks the primary reason why the continent lags the rest of the world, morally and economically.

It is an embarrassing disgrace that the last country on earth to outlaw slavery was Mauritania – in 2007, more than a century after most colonial powers came to their senses; to this day, 10 to 20% of Mauritania’s black population remain enslaved by other blacks and anti-slavery activists are detained and tortured for their humanitarian efforts. In August 2016, 13 anti-slavery activists were sentenced to between three and 15 years imprisonment for trying to stand up for the enslaved. What sayeth the African Union? Nothing.

It took Niger until 2003 to finally declare slavery illegal – after “abolishing” it in 1960 but keeping it legal.

Eritrea is the world’s third biggest source of refugees after Syria and Afghanistan primarily because of another form of slavery – indefinite national service. The Eritrean regime is so paranoid about its hostile neighbour, Ethiopia, that compulsory conscription sometimes lasts decades and constitutes endless forced labour on low pay with leave frequently denied for years. Rule breakers are held in cells or shipping containers. No wonder Eritrean men flee the continent in droves.

One of the worst post-colonial examples of the cheapness of African lives and the passivity of the continent’s leaders was the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The predecessor to the AU, the Organisation of African Unity, refused to call it a genocide and the world sat by while a million Tutsis were slaughtered over the course of 100 days. Who did the OAU ultimately blame? The West – particularly France and the United States – because it was apparently their responsibility to intervene and stop the carnage! And yet when Western nations do intervene or put human-rights or economic-policy conditions on aid, they are accused of being imperialistic and patronising.

Former US president Bill Clinton was wracked with guilt over the Rwandan genocide which he considers one of the great failures of his foreign policy; he formally apologised to the Rwandan people – but I cannot recall any African leaders expressing any guilt, taking responsibility or offering similar apologies, or even simple regret, for their inaction.

African Union solidarity is reserved for the governing elites and not for the people. This is why the organisation has proved so relentlessly useless: most African leaders are part of the problem and therefore cannot be part of the solution unless they disempower themselves and pay back the billions they have stolen. Fat chance.

The election of Nelson Mandela birthed the promise of a different attitude and foreign policy on our continent – one based on human rights rather than reflexive, unconditional defence of every African dictatorship. After all, it is contradictory to argue the obvious – that Africans have the same potential as other human beings – but then to hold them to a patronisingly lower standard of governance and human-rights observance on account of a brutal colonial past. Africa is not the only continent that has been subjected to foreign invaders and therefore we cannot keep using colonialism and racism as an excuse to explain our laggard, pathetically unequal development and lack of respect for human rights. The reality is that every inhabited continent has been a brutal mess for millennia – tribes, clans, city-states, countries and empires at war with each other – and if the root cause is perpetually diagnosed as what happened centuries ago then we are helpless to solve it.  

After Mandela’s short five years in office came Thabo Mbeki who ardently embraced and encouraged the elitist, defensive, unconditional unity embodied by the AU. Incredibly, he still considers his unwavering support for Robert Mugabe to be one of his biggest triumphs, despite the huge cost to the Zimbabwean people and the burden on South Africa which has had to absorb three million desperate Zimbabwean refugees into its stressed economy. Mbeki never viewed the conflict in Zimbabwe as being Mugabe versus the human rights and democratic will of the Zimbabwean people; he saw it as Africa versus the West.

Mbeki’s paranoid obsession with the West spawned his outlandish views on HIV/AIDS and resistance to anti-retrovirals on account of their toxic side effects which he seemed to see as some sort of racist plot (never mind that chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer also have toxic side effects but are the best the medical profession can currently offer). His public health policy contributed to the deaths of 300 000 South Africans and the orphaning of more than a million children. Neither he nor the ANC has ever offered an apology to the South African people and he continues to defend his bizarre views on HIV/AIDS.

Mbeki reminds me of some Jews I know who still refuse to buy German products as though current generations of Germans are responsible for genocidal choices made before they were born. Times change. It is illegal to be a Nazi in Germany and people are imprisoned for denying the holocaust. A scant 50 years ago, black American men couldn’t vote and were being lynched by white racists; now a black man has been democratically elected president twice by a majority white electorate.

Does this mean everything is rosy in Europe and the US? Of course not. Every country is a work in progress – after all, the very concept of human rights is relatively new in broad historical terms and is constantly evolving. A century ago, human rights involved simple, obvious principles such as giving women and blacks the vote; now it encompasses acknowledging the fact that people don’t choose their own sexuality any more than they choose their own skin colour.

Europeans and Americans can be hypocrites when it comes to human rights, excusing the oppression of the Palestinians, turning a blind eye to vicious human-rights abuses in the Middle East in exchange for oil, and prioritising the war against Al Shabaab and Boko Haram over human-rights concerns. However, that does not mean respect for human rights is a “Western” concept that should not matter. Surely every sane person wants “regime change” in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe whose desperate people suffer from an 80% unemployment rate?

The time for excuses is long over, the time for holding African leaders to patronisingly lower standards must end. It would take many books to describe the dreadful suffering inflicted by black Africans on each other amid despotic political leadership that creates more problems than it solves. In fact, many African leaders are not even aware of the problems suffered by their citizenry because they prohibit a free press which might enlighten them more precisely as to the people’s suffering and crushed opportunities: Whose fault is it that there is still no tarred, trans-African highway? Did European leaders lie down on the road to make sure it was never built and that Africa remained inefficient? Whose fault is it that African countries do a scant 12% of their trade with each other because it is far easier to trade with other continents than attempt to deal with each other’s bureaucracies? Why do trucks have to line up at inter-African borders for days, waiting to be processed by lazy, corrupt, border bureaucrats who couldn’t give a shit about the truck drivers or the economy they are trying to service? Whose fault is it that Nigeria produces crude oil but has to import refined petroleum because its four government-run refineries suffer such poor maintenance that they are perpetually incapable of operating at full capacity? Why is it acceptable for ANC politicians who make over a million rand a year to treat and pay their workers like white racists did under apartheid? How do African politicians and their children become billionaires on government salaries? Whose fault is it that Nigeria’s military brass stole billions meant for military equipment to aid in the fight against Boko Haram and sent their troops into battle unprepared, knowing they were likely to die (and then charged some soldiers with treason for refusing to sacrifice themselves)? Why is it that in 80% of sub-Saharan African countries, anti-HIV drugs are available but their distribution fails at the “last mile”?  The drugs make it across oceans but it is the pathetic last few kilometres to the clinics that pose the problem. Even when a country is in crisis, such as Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic, border bureaucrats left vital medical supplies donated by the West sitting at the airport for a month while their fellow citizens died like flies. And it took the African Union five months just to have a meeting about the Ebola outbreak – months after the West was already in full action mode.

The march from colonial liberation to self-negation and continued oppression is characterised by many complex factors for which I have no glib explanation. Why did African revolutionaries risk their lives to liberate their nations from colonialism only to continue to violate their people’s human rights and steal their nations’ wealth? It certainly reflects a deep-seated dehumanisation stemming from the violent patriarchy and elitism of a tradition that allows kings, chiefs and men to rule on whim – an awful foundation of cultural, economic and social oppression that was subsequently fortified by the racist contempt of colonialism. Can traditional African cultures that promote second-class status for women and unconditional respect for royals, chiefs and elders ever produce truly democratic, accountable, human-rights-based societies? Not without an ability to evolve and firmly prioritise human rights over culture and tradition.

Despite rivers of rhetoric about equality, traditional elitism in Africa, fortified by bourgeois materialism, is accepted as natural law. Traditional African cultures have one commonality: kings, chiefs, men and elders have more status and power than everyone else. Therein lies the fundamental clash between culture and a democratic society based on human rights for all: The South African government erects “speed kills” warning signs around the country but its politicians apparently believe that commonsense advisory doesn’t apply to them; they speed around the country in blue-light convoys, periodically maiming and killing citizens and it is simply considered to be a cost of doing business. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – a member of parliament who hardly ever shows up for work – was outraged that the police dared pull her driver over for speeding. She cried racism as though it should be understood and accepted that she and all around her are exempt from the traffic laws; it was the police officers who were simply doing their jobs and had no idea she was sitting in the back seat who got suspended. Despite his profuse, frantic apologies, a Zimbabwean truck driver was recently sentenced to two years in prison and banned from driving for life for inadvertently getting in the way of the Bob and the Wailers motorcade. This is outrageous and pathetic but not unusual on our continent. African leaders and tribal royals demand obeisance and special treatment regardless of their people’s interests.

Prince William drives himself around England in British-made cars with no blue lights, discreetly followed by one security vehicle, and British politicians would never be seen in expensive foreign cars blowing through traffic lights and endangering citizens. In South Africa, R15 million has been spent on imported, luxury vehicles just for President Zuma’s wives. Clearly, westerners have more self-esteem and assertiveness by virtue of lengthier traditions of human rights and democracy: they value their own lives a lot more than Africans and have a far more limited tolerance for inefficiency, hypocrisy and elitism.

If black adult lives matter little in Africa, children’s lives seem to matter even less – they are at the bottom of the man- woman- child hierarchy. The South Sudanese government of President Salva Kiir has begun rounding up children as young as 12 to fight in its civil war. Sixty percent of children aged five to 17 in Burkina Faso work. Children are birthed throughout the continent with scant regard for whether there are sufficient resources for them. Can there be anything more frustrating than seeing a painfully thin woman in a refugee camp pregnant with her sixth child or an unemployed man with multiple wives and a dozen children born into zero opportunity?

Workers are not just producers; they are also consumers. Lifestyle is determined by an aggregate of income, needs and prices. People can make a hundred thousand a month but if a loaf of bread costs a grand and/or they each have 10 children and two households to support, they will be relentlessly poor and beyond any macro-economic intervention. And yet it is not just politically incorrect but verboten to even mention the critical issue of poor people burdening themselves and diminishing their prospects and those of the continent by having enormous families.

Julius Malema encourages black South Africans to have as many children as possible and Jacob Zuma who has fathered over 20 children with a multitude of mothers pronounces that women are not real women until they have children.

This is insane and inhumane on so many levels: if every adult human was financially and emotionally suited to be a parent, there would be no child abandonment or neglect anywhere in the world; the reality is that every country on earth has to deal with abandoned babies and children that need to be fostered and adopted by other adults. Politicians, civic and religious leaders should be emphasising the opposite: having children is a serious emotional commitment and financial responsibility that is best met by conscious family planning. Each child represents an expense that diminishes the resources available to the rest of the family; it is not helpful for adults, children or society for a person to have eight children unless they can afford it. These are commonsense realities that cannot be obviated by defensive, hazy references to culture or tradition. And yet trade unions want us to sympathise with a mine worker who earns R6 000 a month but chooses to have two wives and eight children, using his housing allowance for food instead of housing, and then complaining about living in a shack. Apparently, there is a macro-economic solution that will allow workers to live large no matter how many children they spawn. Well, what is it?

Across the continent, there are hideous, persecutory cultural traditions that trammel life prospects for women and children, including child marriage and female genital mutilation. Most recently, the world was introduced to the hyenas of southern Malawi, older men who are paid by parents to have sex with their daughters as soon as they experience their first menstruation.

These appalling and embarrassing facts have not stopped African leaders from continuing to point fingers at the West for the sins of the past while turning a blind eye to the present-day slavery, torture, exploitation and oppression practiced by and against their own people. The unconditional solidarity embodied by the African Union (which gets most of its budget from the West) must be discarded. How about forming an alternative organisation, consisting of a smaller group of nations that are at least theoretically committed to democracy, human rights and progress, and willing to punish dictators on the continent with economic sanctions?

Oppressive traditions and the acceptance of elitism in Africa are home-grown, self-inflicted burdens that have nothing to do with the wicked west. Until human rights are prioritised over tradition and culture, until African leaders are willing to turn away from each other on principle, Africa simply cannot progress.