Image: Sunil Nash(Unsplash)

The use of excessive force during protests is something that we are very familiar with in South Africa (SA). During Apartheid security forces would fire into open crowds without concern for the lives that could be taken. The Sharpeville Massacre and June 16th riots are two examples of the many instances where police, with the backing of the state, could use live ammunition on civilians. The use of this level of force has not disappeared in contemporary SA, we all remember Andries Tetana and Marikana. There have been similar cases of deadly shootings of protestors across the world. On 20th October this year it was reported that the Nigerian army and police forces opened fire and shot dead protestors who had gathered peacefully at Lekki Toll Gate to demand an end to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Violent suppression of civil action is something experienced all over the world. However, protesting and violence are not synonyms. Of course, they are not. Just because you decide to march from one side of town to the other or stage a silent sit-in it does not mean that it will end in tear gas and bullets. 

In a democratic state is largely accepted that citizens should be allowed to gather and engage in some form of civil disobedience so long as it does not disrupt the peace of the general society. A good functioning democracy would allow such activity and engage the citizenry about the issue at hand and then develop a way forward. So then how does this form of civil action sometimes result in the killing of innocent individuals or the unlawful imprisonment of activists?  It is not unheard of that the state and its people can sometimes clash resulting in violent action by both the state and the citizens. How do we understand the events leading up to that moment? In different societies and different times, the reasons or causes of violence are different. I would, however, argue that protests turn violent when on the one hand you have an active group of people who believe their demands are not being addressed and so they employ violence as a means to necessitate a reaction from the state. Or on the other hand, violence occurs when they state believes it has sufficiently responded to its citizens and now any action taken beyond that point is considered illegal and so the rule of law needs to be enforced.  

When you have two competing moral considerations it is likely that there will be some form of confrontation as each side believes they have an obligation to uphold what they think is right. For the citizens it may be the protection of their basic rights and dignity which allows them to maintain some form of resistance in the first place. For the state it may be the restoration of societal order and the subsequent effective administration of the nation. This friction between the two (the state and the citizen) is what cultivates an environment in which the use of force becomes justified whereby it changes the physical space wherein the contestation is occurring. In other words, the opposing rhetoric are now manifested in the form of a face-off between security forces and protestors. This allows for the smallest of provocations to be met with the use of the most excessive force available to either side. In any society one would like to think that the government and its citizens should be able to interact with one another without resorting to violence. In most countries with stable democracies this is the case, majority of the time. However, every so often we find ourselves confronted with instances where violence does occur and we get stuck in a he said she said type of conundrum. When we find ourselves in such moments, the most important fact to remember is that democracy is meant to maximise the participation of individuals to achieve the best possible society for the most amount of people.  

Kaamillah Soeker has recently completed a Masters Degree at the Wits School of Governance in Public and Development Management. She is interested in Policy Analysis of South Africa and the African continent.


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