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Systems of Governance

The Death of Jacob Dlamini

Political analyst, Jacob Dlamini, argues that the death of another so named in the hotbed of resistance that was the Vaal Triangle in the mid-1980s, is a stark and sobering reminder that the failure of our collective imagination remains, nearly half a century on, the measure of our fledgling democracy.

Jacob Dlamini died a gruesome death. He and his wife, Masabata, were in their house on Nhlapo Street in Sharpeville when a group of residents, marching down Zwane Street to the local offices of the Lekoa Town Council, on which Dlamini served as deputy mayor, attacked his house. The residents were protesting against a R5.90 rent increase that had been recently announced by the council.

As the residents marched past Nhlapo Street, some of them broke off from the march and stoned Dlamini’s house. The police arrived immediately, firing teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The police asked Dlamini to come with them for his own safety. Dlamini refused. The police left. Fifteen minutes later, the residents regrouped and began stoning Dlamini’s house again. He came out armed with a 9mm Star pistol. He fired into the crowd, injuring one woman. He went back into the house. The residents continued to attack the house. Someone threw a petrol bomb into the house. Dlamini, still armed, ran out of the house. He tried to jump over the wire-mesh fence that separated his yard from that of his neighbour, Tshepo Stoffel Maile.

Two to three people, never identified, broke away from the residents and ran after Dlamini. They wrestled him to the ground outside Maile’s kitchen door, disarmed him and began assaulting him. Other residents, also unidentified, joined in. They stoned Dlamini around the head, knocking him out. As Dlamini lay unconscious outside Maile’s door, some residents pushed his car out of the garage and onto Nhlapo Street. They turned the car on its side and set is alight. As the flames consumed the car, two or three people, also never identified, dragged Dlamini’s limp body to his burning car. They set him alight – alive but unconscious.

Asked during the trial of the Sharpeville Six what actually killed Dlamini, Herbert Arthur Church, the district pathologist for Vereeniging, answered: “Die oorsaak kan ek nie presies vasstel nie. Dit was breinbesering en verbranding. Ek weet nie watter een van die twee nie, maar die breinbesering…” (I cannot determine precisely the cause of death. It was brain injury and burning. I don’t know which of the two, but the brain injury…)

Pushed by the prosecutor to say which of the two might have killed Dlamini, Church said that the brain injury would have killed Dlamini eventually. He had found lacerations all around Dlamini’s head. He had also found internal bleeding, a skull fracture and blood in the trachea – this last bit of medical evidence is proof that Dlamini was still alive when he was dragged to his car and set alight. The attack began at about 9am. By 1pm, when the police arrived to collect Dlamini’s corpse, he was long dead.

Dlamini was among 50 people, four of them town councillors, killed in and around the Vaal Triangle townships of Sharpeville, Sebokeng, Boipatong and Bophelong that bitter spring day on 3 September 1984. The police were responsible for killing many of the dead but some, like Dlamini, were killed by groups of residents protesting against unpopular councils such as the Lekoa Town Council. That day, at least six months before ANC president Oliver Tambo called for South African townships to be rendered ungovernable, marked the start of an uprising that was to lead, by December 1984, to the collapse of the Lekoa Town Council and, the following year, the collapse of Black Local Authorities around the country and the declaration of a state of emergency. Few people would have mourned the demise of Dlamini’s council, voted into office in late 1983 by only 12 per cent of eligible voters in Sharpeville. But many would have mourned or been touched by his death.

Who was Dlamini?

At the time of his death, Dlamini was 1.65m tall and weighed 76kg. He was the father of three children, a boy aged 12, a girl aged seven and a four-year-old boy. He was a former teacher at Tswelopele Higher Primary School in Sharpeville, where one ex-pupil and political rival, Bongi Matsose, remembered him as a good teacher and disciplinarian. Neighbour Cornelia Sefadi, 77, said Dlamini was a man of stature: “Une a le motho was seriti.” Dlamini, she said, was not one for idle chit-chat. Esther Mosia, 67, said Dlamini was conscientious: “He treated us well.” Mamonare Leah Netshivhale, 84, said Dlamini was generous: “He would give me lifts.”

Not every resident had good memories of Dlamini. Maile, Dlamini’s neighbour to the left, said while Dlamini valued education, he was also arrogant and haughty. “He would look at you soos jy’s vokol,” said Maile. “He trusted war and power. But he fell.”

There are people who have had no choice but to live that day over and over again. After Dlamini was killed, his wife Masabata lost her mind and died shortly thereafter. His children live in silence and there are claims that their father’s death took an untold toll on them. Speaking of one close Dlamini relative, neighbour Tshepo Stoffel Maile said: “Hy is onder die bottel.” (He drinks too much.)

When I began talking to Dlamini’s sister about this essay last year, she was reluctant to say anything. No one would understand the family’s pain, she thought. When I spoke to her again more recently, she said the events of September 1984 were still too fresh in the family’s collective memory to talk openly and publicly about them. Anna Mbatha, a 65-year-old woman who lives in the yard that was once Dlamini’s (the house was destroyed), had another possible explanation for the family’s refusal to talk openly about its loss: skaam (shame). Mbatha believes Dlamini’s family might be too ashamed by the circumstances of his death. So they mourn his loss in private, disavow it in public.

And even a very public death is no guarantee of bureaucratic indemnity. On 5 September 1997, 13 years and two days after Dlamini died, the law firm of Snijman and Smullen, acting for the Kopanong/Vereeniging Metropolitan Substructure, issued a summons against Dlamini for failing to pay more than R1,000 in rates and taxes. The Emfuleni Local Municipality continues to issue monthly statements in the name of Jacob Dlamini. The last one, of which I have a copy, says that Dlamini owes R4,767 in unpaid rates and taxes.

The many lives of Jacob Dlamini

Carl Schmitt claims that the sovereign is he who decides on the state of the exception, he who decides on who may live and who may die – and Jacob Dlamini’s death was the outcome of a clash of sovereignties. His death was a battle of legitimacy between the residents of Sharpeville, on the one hand, and the apartheid state on the other. In attacking Dlamini so brazenly, executing him so spectacularly and publicly, the residents of Sharpeville involved were staking their claim as a collective sovereign empowered by ‘the masses’ and ‘the will of the people’ to decide on who may live and who may die. Simultaneously, in coming down hard on the residents of Sharpeville, killing scores, arresting hundreds and mounting what became known as the Sharpeville Six Trial, the apartheid state sought to cast itself as the only legitimate authority in South Africa.

Dlamini became what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, that quaint figure from Roman law who, to paraphrase Macaulay’s Horatius, could never die better. Dlamini, as homo sacer, could enjoy neither heroic nor sacred death. For the residents of Sharpeville who saw their actions as expressing “the will of the people,” Dlamini could be killed but not murdered. In other words, he could enjoy nothing more than an animal death. (Not being a comrade or a freedom fighter, of course, Dlamini could not be martyred.) For the apartheid state, however, Dlamini was indeed murdered. He was murdered by five men and one woman acting in concert with what the charge sheet called “a mass” and with the “common purpose” to “persuade the Government of the Republic to do something or not to do something or to adopt a specified viewpoint or to abandon it” and/or “to intimidate, to demoralise or to persuade the general public; a particular population group or the inhabitants of a particular area to do something or not to do something”. This was a contest about legitimacy.

But Dlamini was more than just a corpse on which this clash and contest were staged. He was also a father, a neighbour, a teacher and many things besides. By remembering Jacob Dlamini and the thousands of bodies that line our long road to freedom, we are challenged to think critically about the meaning and cost of that freedom. Did the tree of freedom indeed have to be watered and nourished, as both Robert Sobukwe and Solomon Mahlangu are reputed to have said, by human blood? Did the death of people – either enemies of the people like Jacob Dlamini, or freedom fighters like Solomon Mahlangu – have to be the means by which we achieved our freedom?

To ask such is to raise difficult questions about the secrets, taboos and disavowals that define the archive of the struggle against apartheid. Ultimately, the question to ask is not: “How can man die better?” as was asked of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and many others, but rather: “Why should human life be reduced to means?” The standard response to questions about the place of violence in our resistance struggle is that we had no choice but to kill and die for freedom. However, this conclusion is not borne out, regardless of the archive consulted.

Apartheid did not suffer a military defeat. It suffered a moral defeat. The question remains: “Was the armed struggle necessary?” To ask that question is to break a cardinal taboo of the liberation struggle. To violate that taboo is to raise the secrets and the disavowals that have come with us into post-apartheid South Africa.

The failure of the imagination

The intellectual bankruptcy and moral depravity of apartheid was not based upon the fact that apartheid did not give black people flushing toilets, clean water, tarred roads, adequate housing and well-endowed schools, or that it did not educate enough black doctors, engineers and accountants. These were all striking examples of the fundamental wrongness of apartheid. They must be corrected. But surely the struggle against apartheid was not about who – between the liberation movement and the apartheid state – could build better toilets for black people. Yet, it is these totems – RDP houses, toilets, tarred roads, affirmative action and BEE – that have become the measure of our freedom, a measure that marks a serious failure of the imagination on our part.

Flushing toilets, safe and clean drinking water and roads without potholes are, indeed, important. But they cannot be the sole focus of our politics. The number of people who travel on roads without potholes cannot be the measure of the quality of our democracy. And yet, that is exactly what we have.

Our government’s fixation on the doctrine of service delivery has had the adverse effect of denuding the politics of meaningful participation by ordinary South Africans. We have become clients, hapless and passive agents, to whom know-it-all bureaucrats deliver services.

If an educated bureaucrat or powerful politician knows the means to give us a better life, what point is there to a politics whose defining feature is the pursuit of the good life, a life irreducible to some Human Development Index statistic? It is not too hard to see the same obsession with means and ends as we see today at play in the killing of Jacob Dlamini. He was nothing more and nothing less than the means to our freedom. That approach is obscene.

Heroism versus heroic acts

Mandela is the hero whose presence allows us not to be heroes in our own lives. He is the excuse many of us turn to for an explanation as to why, 14 years after the end of apartheid, we have not lived up to our own promises. However, our evasion only dehumanises Mandela, dehistoricises him and makes him larger than life – while absolving us of the moral responsibility to become better people. Mandela is not a hero; he is a human being whose heroic acts have allowed him to walk taller. He is not perfect. In a similar vein, Jacob Dlamini was not a perfect man. We must hold him responsible for the moral and political choices he made; but we must also accept that Dlamini was more than the sum total of his moral and political choices.

On the eve of the anti-pass protests in March 1960, Sobukwe said: “This is not a game. We are not gambling. We are taking our first step in the march to African independence and the United States of Africa. And we are not leading corpses to the new Africa. We are leading the vital, breathing and dynamic youth of our land. We are leading the youth, not to death, but to life abundant.”

Half a century later, who exactly are we leading? And where are we leading them to?

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