Aislinn Laing, Telegraph (London), March 7, 2013
Graca Machel, the human rights activist and wife of Nelson Mandela, has warned that South Africa is an “angry nation” teetering on the brink of “something very dangerous” if extreme levels of violence in the country are not addressed.
Mrs Machel said the anger sprung from “unaddressed” issues around the country’s apartheid past, adding: “We have to be more cautious about how we deal with a society that is bleeding and breathing pain”.
Her comments are seen as deeply significant as both she and her husband have previously refrained from sharing their views about how the nation is being run since he left the presidency 14 years ago.
Mrs Machel was speaking at the memorial service on Wednesday of Mido Macia, a 27-year-old taxi driver who died in custody after he was tied to the back of a police van and dragged for 500 metres by officers, apparently for arguing over a traffic infringement.
The incident was recorded on the mobile phones of several people in a large crowd that witnessed the atrocity, in a town west of Johannesburg last Tuesday.
Coming less than a year after police opened fire on miners striking over wages at the Marikana platinum mine, killing 34 people, it reignited concern among South Africans that the world-renowned brutality of their criminals is now matched only by the increasingly infamous violence of their police force.
A visibly upset Mrs Machel, a Mozambican herself and the widow of its former president Samora Machel, told a cheering crowd that the “increasing institutionalisation of violence” was creating a police force “actively aggressive towards a defenceless public”.
“South Africa is an angry nation,” she said. “We are on the precipice of something very dangerous with the potential of not being able to stop the fall.
“The level of anger and aggression is rising. This is an expression of deeper trouble from the past that has not been addressed. We have to be more cautious about how we deal with a society that is bleeding and breathing pain.”
The death of Mr Macia came after other recent examples of police brutality, including the alleged operation by police in Durban of a death squad which executed criminals — and, often, innocent bystanders — with impunity, and the beating death by police of Andries Tatane, an unarmed man taking part in a protest about a lack of basic services in his Free State town.
Yet widespread fear of the police has prompted no let-up in the country’s rampant criminality.
Last month there was national outrage over the gang-rape, mutilation and murder of 17-year-old girl named Anene Booysen.
It was followed by the shock arrest of the nation’s former golden boy, Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, over the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He told police he believed she was an intruder; they say he murdered her after a row.
On Thursday, newspapers carried a story about a four-month-old baby boy who was pepper-sprayed while he slept in his mother’s arms by robbers who broke into the family’s home in Durban.
While Mrs Machel did not lay the blame for such fury at any particular door, her comments will be devastating for the ANC, which has run South Africa since apartheid and frequently evokes Mr Mandela’s name to retain the loyalty of voters amid accusations that it has failed to address inequality or clamp down on corruption.
They coincide with a growing number of assaults on the country’s leadership and direction by other prominent figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mr Mandela’s lawyer George Bizos, and former president Thabo Mbeki.
Allister Sparks, a writer and political commentator, said they reflected a profound unease among the big beasts of the anti-apartheid struggle.
“It is extremely unusual for Mrs Machel to speak out on any political issues at all and it’s very significant indeed that she has done so now,” he said.
Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, said violence was now endemic in spiralling protests about corruption, a lack of basic services and continued inequality.
“People feel that extreme violence is the only way they can get heard — and police react in an even more violent way, which is beginning to seep into the national psyche,” he said.
William Gumede, author of a new history of the ANC movement entitled Restless Nation, said South Africa was in the midst of a “perfect storm” of economic factors, a historically wounded society and continuing social violence.
“There is a deep-rooted anger which is a legacy of apartheid but there’s also a new resentment towards former comrades who are doing so well when so many lead useless and hopeless lives,” he said.
But President Zuma, speaking to traditional leaders in parliament on Thursday, said that despite the events of recent weeks, it was wrong to paint his country as an “inherently violent place to live in”.
“We should be careful not to rubbish our country without realising,” he told traditional leaders at parliament,” he said. “South Africa is not (a) violent country. It is certain people in our country who are violent. By and large we are not, we are peace-loving people.”
Mr Gumede said that the country’s leadership was “complacent”.
“The ANC leadership doesn’t seem to understand the delicate position we have come to and may only wake up to what’s happening if their supporters voice their frustrations at the ballot box,” he said.
Keith Khoza, an ANC spokesman, said it “doesn’t help to point fingers”.
“These are issues that need to be confronted by the nation, not only government,” he said. “The nation must act in union with civil society, churches and government.”
South Africa’s total post-apartheid recorded crime levels have dropped by almost a quarter since their peak in 2002/2003.