COMMENT: Nic Wolpe on George Floyd – Why can’t we banish bigotry like we banished apartheid?

By Nic Wolpe

The pandemic has thrown the spotlight on the gross inequalities that plague our world; the bitter harvest of unfettered capitalism and consumption. COVID-19 has thrown millions of people out of work and onto the lines at soup kitchens and food banks to exist on the slender generosity of others. Amidst this we read how the wealth of the wealthiest of society continues to grow exponentially.

In the United States, in the thick of it all, came the sickening death at the hands of police of an innocent African American. It sparked outrage on the streets around the world and brought into stark focus our world of racial inequality and prejudice. A staggering reality for the land that gave us the sweet words of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,  that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The brutal and senseless murder of George Floydripped down those lofty ideals and cast them into the gutter.

Aside from this, as the world struggles to contain COVID-19, concern is growing that governments, under the guise of addressing the pandemic, are slowly whittling away at hard won freedoms. It is unfortunate and sad that South Africa is not above these accusations. There has been a rising tide of voices expressing concern that the freedoms and civils rights secured by our struggle against apartheid are being undermined; that the declaration of a “National State of Disaster” is being used to emasculate our Freedom Charter, Bill of Rights and Constitution,  on the way to a draconian state. The fear is there are elements within Government who are abusing the powers given to them through the declaration of the “National State of Disaster”, to strengthen not only their political positions but to circumnavigate the democratic laws of the land, in search of greater power and control.

It is interesting to note that President Lincoln, following his decision shortly after the start of the Civil War, to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus, came in for similar criticism. There are indeed similar parallels in the justification to rein in democratic principles for the sake and wellbeing of the country and its people. However, can the argument used by President Lincoln that his actions were dictated by serving the national interest be used now to propagate and justify certain measures being implemented under the “ National State of Disaster” as being in the National Interest and wellbeing of our people. Therefore, the fundamental question is can one draw a justifiable comparison between war and the battle against a virus, to justify some of the draconian measures being imposed in the name of national Interest, which has curtailed and put restrictions on our freedoms and civil liberties. Venturing down this path has potential dangers and opens a Pandora’s Box for abuse, particular if our political leaders are susceptible to the concentration and accumulation of unfettered political power, particularly when they begin to use such power to undermine and discredit the necessary checks, balances and overseeing mechanisms, to not only hold our political leaders to account and the potential possibility of political misuse and abuse of such power. As Plato remarked “the measure of a man is what he does with power” and as President Lincoln stated: “nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

Unfortunately history is strewn with incidents of political leaders accumulating immense political power and abusing and riding roughshod over the very mechanisms to check and limit such political abuses and in the process undermining the populous civil rights and liberties. A problem we face as Plato suggests in many cases is those who rise to power do so because most good men are indifferent to public affairs. As he says “ one of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors

 America, unfortunately is currently living proof of Plato’s concern. We have all being watching with utter dismay – on CNN – how a group of Police Officers, who swore to protect and serve, to uphold the law, abused this oath in such a blatant, brutal and cavalier way.  The look on the officer’s face, as he kept his kneed of the neck of George Floyd, was one of arrogance, the invincibility of being untouchable. This is not surprising when there is a President in the White House, who at a time like this should be showing statesmanship and leadership, but instead belittles the pandemic by making a wild and ludicrous statement that drinking disinfectant will cure you of COVID-19 and following the barbaric killing of George Floyd by police offices, actions reminiscent of apartheid security forces, tweets: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The President then has the audacity to play naïve and the affront to claim he has no idea that the saying came from in the violent days of South Africa.

One is left stunned and bewildered that the leader, supposedly of the free world, only interest and concern is for the police to turn on its people, when what is needed and required, is leadership, compassion, understanding, empathy and solidarity at a time of multiple distress, pain and anguish. His actions and behaviour show he has no respect for human life, common decency and the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded on. At times like this, just like during the very dark days of apartheid, we all hope for a brighter and better tomorrow;, a tomorrow built on and enshrined in the principles of universal human rights, equality and justice for all. This is now needed more than ever before, as it was hope that pushed and propelled our people forward in our struggle against apartheid. The endurance and spirit of hope combined with solidarity, unity of a shared common purpose can bring about what we all crave and desire a better life and world for all.

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