When eight South African police officers were videotaped dragging Mido Macia behind a police truck on Tuesday, it added another chapter to the country’s long history of police brutality. But when Macia died in custody today, it sparked a global discussion about the daily violence South Africans are forced to live with.
The offending officers have since been arrested, and the state has expressed outrage over the incident. But this doesn’t change that the violence employed by police during apartheid has spilled into the post-apartheid era unchecked. That the U.S. faces similar problems speaks to our nations’ shared legacy of colonialism, segregation, and racial violence.
Mido Macia of Mozambique was 27 when he was killed.
He’d parked his cab illegally, and when the police had trouble detaining him they bound him to the back of their truck and drove off, dragging him against the blacktop. BBC News linked the event to other violent incidents, namely the mass police shooting of 34 striking miners in Marikana last August. They argue that violence in South Africa is a prominent but underreported fact of life.
Few are willing to discuss how profoundly the apartheid legacy still affects black South Africans. Like in America, that nation’s racial inequalities didn’t disappear when legal segregation fell. Institutional racism has profoundly structured their society, and continues to today: most black people live in the same squalor they did under the former government.
The parallels to American history are striking. Both nations emerged from a brutal history of state-enforced segregation, leading to distinct class divisions along racial lines. The primary difference in the aftermath is that in the U.S., white Americans still held almost all positions of power in business, government, and society. Police brutality disproportionately affects people of color, who’ve historically faced the most discrimination.
In South Africa, the government is full of black faces. Black officers are all over the police force too, including those who murdered Macia. But just like Barack Obama’s presidency doesn’t mean racism is over in America, a black government doesn’t mean the state’s armed representatives don’t still reflect the methods and legacies of apartheid.
The poor are still overwhelmingly black, and blacks are still overwhelmingly poor. Those impacted by apartheid continue to be so, and their treatment by police is largely the same.
It can be hard to conceptualize a racist legacy when the racial makeup of a nation’s leaders change so drastically. Under Jim Crow, Obama’s presidency would be inconceivable, just as Jacob Zuma’s would under apartheid. But a system that’s been ingrained so deeply has a way of sticking around, no matter who’s "in charge."
Oscar Grant in Oakland and Mido Macia in Daveyton: two young black men killed by police in nations functioning under a historically racist legal system. The racism is different in some ways now, but mostly it’s the same.
Witts Justice Project coordinator Nooshin Erfadi said of the Macia killing: "It is absolutely par for the course. Such ridiculous things happen all the time."
One can only hope our nations solve these problems sooner rather than later.