More than sixty years ago, the Selma Race Riots in Alabama shone a spotlight on appalling racial inequality across the US and in other Western countries. It is a damning indictment of our times that, more than six decades later, little appears to have changed on a social level. On 25 May 2020, George Floyd – a black man – was publicly suffocated over the course of nine minutes by a group of white police officers on the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota. A disturbing video of Floyd’s final moments soon went viral across the world, sparking protests and riots across the United States and elsewhere. In Gothenburg, police broke up a protest with dozens of arrests. In Bristol, a statue of a slave owner was thrown into the city’s harbour. In Berlin, the city centre was brought to a standstill by thousands of protesters.
But these injustices and these protests are nothing new. Many remember the day Nelson Mandela walked to freedom after twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robin Island. That was the day that South Africa began to dismantle its Apartheid system, a process that took four years and resulted in thousands being killed during extended, widespread disruption and violence. The anti-Apartheid movement had few plans on what to do beyond freeing Mandela. People within the movement were slow to act, leading to violence.
The Black Lives Matter movement has now developed a clear short-term plan for what it wants, at least in the US: to defund the police. This might sound ludicrous, but the funding structure of American police forces and the responsibilities of officers are even more so. Policing is not governed at the federal level, instead it falls to individual states. This is where the problems begin. Police officers undertake only a few hours of basic training on mental health issues, sectioning and community disorder, yet are expected to deal with these things on a daily basis. Equally, the budget of each police department can be interesting, to say the least. For example: in New York State, the New York City police department has Ferraris that are used as patrol vehicles, yet does not invest in better firearms training.
When Black Lives Matter calls for the defunding of police departments up and down the United States, they are not calling for the liquidation of the police, they are calling for a sensible redistribution of funds, and for money to be invested in more community-based assistance for issues such as mental health responses. This is a nuanced, developed plan. The chant Defund the Police is not. Ergo, it is leaving plenty of scope for disinformation to spread across the internet, particularly on social media. From what I have personally seen across numerous American, British and Swedish social media forums from across the political spectrum, the perceived ridiculousness of Defund the Police is costing the Black Lives Matter movement support. Here again, there are comparisons to be drawn with Apartheid.
In 1976, the Soweto Uprising took place. The Uprising was a response to all tribal and indigenous languages being banned from South African schools. All education now had to be conducted in either English or Afrikaans. Many black children did not know these languages. This led to protests, which were violently dispersed. Despite the fact that police had fired on unarmed black protesters and that the UN would go on to condemn this, images of black people throwing stones at officers and of burning cars in and around the Soweto slum area came to dominate international news. The Soweto Uprising ultimately weakened international opposition to Apartheid – and it would be another eighteen years before it finally came to an end.
But there are also comparisons to be drawn beyond the current situation. Looking forward, Black Lives Matter will, hopefully, achieve their goals of a more just society. However, this was once also the vision of anti-Apartheid activists.
Today, South Africa is still very much a divided nation. Under Apartheid, each racial group could only live in certain areas of the country. Even though these restrictions no longer exist, segregation is still very much alive and well. In Johannesburg, no white people live in the slums of Soweto, just as few black people live in the affluent suburb of Bedfordview. Under Apartheid, black people were actively excluded from education, particularly following the language legislation that paved the way for the Soweto Uprising. Today, the average black South African will spend around eight years in school, while the average white South African will spend around eleven years in school. There is now an emerging black middle class in major cities like Cape Town and Bloemfontein, but these numbers are still testament to a stark reality.
You may well be wondering what societal divides in post-Apartheid South Africa have to do with Black Lives Matter. Simply put, Black Lives Matter needs a roadmap for what it wants beyond Defund the Police. Black Lives Matter needs a ten-year plan. In 1994, South Africa did not have that – and it is still paying the price today. More than proposing social and fiscal changes, Black Lives Matter, as a movement, needs broadchurch, international support from people from all societal groups in putting together a plan on how to change attitudes. Changing minds is often the hardest task of all, as the Suffragettes and the LGBT Rights movements can attest.
In 1976, the cruelty and unnecessary nature of the South African language legislation was the standard of the time. In 2020, the brutality and the pointlessness of the death of George Floyd are not unique. Even just within the month of May, Floyd was not the first black person to be killed by American police officers. Within twenty-four hours, he was not the last. But, like the language legislation, the death of George Floyd is the straw that has broken the camel’s back. It pushed people too far. Today, the aftershocks of the Soweto Uprising can still be felt in South Africa. The shockwaves from the killing of George Floyd are still reverberating throughout societies the world over. 25 May 2020, like 16 June 1976, might well become a date when societies were forced to look in the mirror, ask difficult questions of themselves and, ultimately, act.