“That justice is blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.”
– Langston Hughes
Do you know what it feels like? It feels like it’s all been too much and I am tired. Daily we talk of death, of illness, of people without means to earn a living. The numbers climb, the effects of the pandemic gets closer and closer to home. Then to witness a death; images and videos that would play on an infinite loop. It was all too much. Too much, so I hid. Too much, so I lied, but only to myself, the worst sort of lies. I would watch George Floyd die once, yet he would die a million times over in my mind. Everyone was speaking about it, everyone was outraged. Me? For me it was all too much. It’s still all too much, so I divert my thoughts. I can’t write or talk about it without the anger spilling over. It’s too much, so I hide, I believe in my invisibility and impotence.
We have seen the knee on the neck of a black man, we have seen his life brutally stolen from him, we have cried, we have rallied, and we have used social media to launch our protests. So shocking, so jarring was the senseless brutality, that no one could be unmoved. And so, we reacted. And so, we allowed our divisions and our privilege to emerge- as deep and as enduring as the laws that were once put in place to keep us focused on race as identity. In the blink of an eye, South Africans were transported to our own violent history, in the blink of an eye we were reminded of two things; the worthlessness of a black life and of our ability to deny blame. I wondered if those who responded to the situation with “All lives matter” and talk of the farm murders in South Africa, were the same people who believed that it was “God’s Army” that targeted, and systematically tortured and killed activists during the apartheid. I wondered if, in amongst everyone that took to social media, we genuinely believed in our collective humanity, or if after a post we would still look to black people and ask, day after day, for proof of their humanity. I wondered all of this because we did more than just revisit our history and open old festering wounds; we also created villains who would allow us to absolve ourselves of blame. And as Hans Rosling wrote, once we create villains, we stop thinking.
Would you villainise the police and condemn brutality? Would you villainise Trump and the hate that spews from his mouth? I would. I would do it because I was angry, I would do it because having a face to direct my outrage helps. It helps to name this feeling as anger, and it helps to shift that anger towards someone. Or would you rather villainise the protestors, the looters? Perhaps you knew all along that power at the hands of a black man meant destruction, perhaps the creation of villains had happened long ago in your mind. Whoever you chose, whichever side you were on, there were victims and villains. But where did that leave you? Because here’s what creating a villain does- it helps your anger, it turns your cheek so you can’t see your face in the mirror. Because if you did, you’d see your knee on the neck of a dying man, you’d see that you, just like me, are a villain.
I think of a South African villain, a man known as “Prime Evil”, and how he once said that all his acts of violence, the atrocities he committed, the deaths, were all for nothing at the end, “We all could have been alive having a beer”. Lives, families and to many, hope, crumbled at the hands of this man, “all for nothing” at the end. I have read numerous accounts of horrific acts that Eugene De Kock committed or orchestrated, and nothing jarred me as much as that one statement. To think of the destruction of lives, of the lost potential and to hear from someone whose hands could never be washed clean that it should have never happened, struck a cord so deep with me. No lives should ever be lost in this way and while we know it as a fundamental truth, we are slow to action. Perhaps what scares me is that when we look back years from now will we say that George Floyd died for nothing? That his death, while so public, so viscerally demanding, would one day mean nothing? It scares me that even though we’re shocked and appalled to watch a man die like an animal in the streets, we will still be the ones that keep our knee on his neck. It scares me because we don’t see our own culpability in this mess. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when all you do is put up a post on Facebook. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you believe in the lie that is white competence, when you say you didn’t hire black talent because you couldn’t find it. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you ask “Was the apartheid that bad?”. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you don’t pay your domestic or your gardener a living wage. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when you propagate racist jokes or condone racist slurs. It scares me because black lives don’t matter when we rob people of opportunities to live a life they chose to value. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the visibility, I applaud those who have shown up in some way or form, but it is not enough. It is not enough to be act only when you’re outraged. Black lives will never matter until we internalise our role, until we see that the knee on the neck does not belong to one person but to all of us. If we do not acknowledge our privilege, if we do not truly condemn the systems that serve us, will black lives ever matter?