In the Shoes of the Rock Throwers – Part 2

I recently wrote a post about the incidents of rocks being thrown off bridges on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The theory – and I do state in the piece that it is a theory – put forward in the piece is that systemic social injustices – i.e. poverty, unemployment and inequality – prevalent in one area compared with untold wealth in neighbouring suburbs, may be creating a fertile seedbed for resentment which can in turn lead to violence. The piece upset and angered some people. I want to sincerely apologise for this because my intention is always to provoke dialogue and promote an alternative narrative, but never to cause anger and resentment. So, let me try to clarify my position. Rock throwing is a heinous criminal act which I denounce totally. Instances of damage to property due to rock throwing are unacceptable; deaths caused by this act are tragic and criminal and the perpetrators must face the full might of the law.  Is there any excuse for violence? None whatsoever. Are there reasons for it? I argue that there are. As there are with all major crimes. Now clearly not all people afflicted by poverty, unemployment and inequality will get onto a bridge and throw a rock at a passing vehicle. But some might. Is resentment and bitterness a justification for crime and violence? Absolutely not. Perpetrators of crime and violence should face the full wrath of the law. But as a society, we have a responsibility – whilst we are bringing these criminals to book – to be analysing every possible root cause of such violent acts. We have a responsibility to seek out ways that we can create a healthy societal context in which violence is not perpetrated in the first place. For example, research tells us that hurt people, hurt people.  This does not mean that people who hurt others shouldn’t face the full might of the law – they should. But as a society we must seek out and apply the necessary healing treatments to create an atmosphere of peace and non-violence. This will always involve some form of dialogue and the asking of the right (and usually difficult) questions. We dismiss this thinking as bunny hugging/liberal etc at our peril for in our dismissal of the need for social healing, we in turn contribute to the atmosphere of violence and further polarise society. I am delighted that they have apprehended suspects. Now let’s work together to understand why people act violently so we can act together to prevent further violence. I am aware that many of us – me included – don’t want to believe that poverty is itself a form of violence. When humans are told that houses they were promised 10 years ago will not materialize because a zoo is being built, this is a form of violence against those people; it makes them sub-human. And often people respond to violence with violence. Again, I am in no way condoning this. But until we recognize poverty as a form of violence we will always vilify “the other” (rock throwers, violent protesters etc.) and exonerate ourselves. I have come to the painful realization that for me to enjoy the privileged life I do, someone (probably many someone’s) necessarily must go without. That is the real and painful truth of inequality and it tears societies apart as was stated just this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Finally, we can and should put cages over bridges. We must catch criminals. But for this not to be a case of kicking the can down the road, we must engage communities to get necessary insights into why violence happens in the first place – and then put actions in place to prevent or at least diminish the chances of recurrence. For those interested, I am putting together a team that is going to go in and engage local community members on this issue of rock throwing and other forms of violence on the North Coast. Mail me if you would like to get involved.

He who is without blame cast the first stone

“I…am an image of what is happening everywhere, and I want it to stop today”. Richard Rohr.

In our defence, we had been in the queue for a good couple of hours. Lolly had been as patient as anyone could reasonably expect a 5-year-old to be and Cathy was working hard at maintaining that “isn’t-this-all-so-wonderful” face that parents do in adverse holiday situations. I was trying manfully to practise saying hello and smiling at people. But it was hot, the queue was endless and the experience was losing its shine. The Table Mountain cable way is a world-class tourist attraction that is exceptionally well run. However, on this particular day there had been early morning wind on the mountain and the cable car had remained shut until around 10:00 am – the time that we arrived. As a consequence, there were several hundred people in front of us waiting to be ferried up the mountain. We were getting close to the front when we became aware of an adolescent child – a new face in our immediate circle of queue friends – standing behind us. We thought little of it, until we became aware that the rest of his family were following suit; leapfrogging their way up the winding line of people one family member at a time. Father would nudge a child forward to hop the queue and once the child had blended in with the crowds, the rest of the Von Trapps would follow. Eventually the whole lot of them were in front of us. Cathy transformed from oh-so-happy Mum into Darth Vader. I thought about greeting these newcomers in a friendly “being peace” kind of way but opted to spend the rest of our wait plotting ever more gruesome ways to exact my revenge.  However, in that unspoken way that spouses sometimes make decisions we opted for a truly brave and adult response to this irksome family: we stood close behind them and muttered our disgust at their appalling queue etiquette – just loudly enough for them to hear: “What gives people the right? “and “I hope they enjoy the extra few seconds of view they will have”. It was this last comment that caused the mother to turn round, take Cathy’s hand and say patronisingly: “Oh, darling we will!” Well, Cathy transformed out of Darth Vader into Lucifer himself and made to mouth off. I chose to play the peace-maker role in this somewhat volatile situation by declaring loudly: “Oh leave it Cath, they aren’t worth it!” I turned away in a huff and looked down towards the city. Just a short distance below our scene of mountain rage, the university students were continuing to enact #feesmustfall by looting, burning, threatening and expressing hatred and vengeance. My anger-spilt-over at our small queueing injustice was suddenly inseparable from the rage of our nation. I went cold. How easily I point fingers; how quickly I exonerate myself; paint a me-and-them picture. I am non-violent and peaceful because I speak and write about such lofty ideals damn it; because I mouth off against the violence associated with such campaigns as #feesmustfall.  I am better than someone who hurts people or damages property.  I may spew vitriol about this family, that group of students or some random politicians. But as long as it is behind people’s backs or in the safety of my social or work circle, then I can still pass as a reasonable, peaceful citizen. Much of my passion is about promoting peace and non-violence in our country and there I was reacting in a decidedly non-peaceful way to something as petty as queue hoppers. In effect, I acknowledged in that situation a violent response to injustice is easier – better perhaps – than non-violence. This was abhorrent to me; shameful in fact; a denial of the infinitely powerful processes of peaceful conflict resolution. non-violence “He who is without blame cast the first stone”. I know I must drop my stone – in truth we all must – but preaching about peace, tolerance and non-violence is so much easier than actually doing anything about it. We want to stone the so-called “wrong-doers” as this eases our pain and assuages our guilt. But we must find a way – even in the seemingly small instances of violence and confrontation in our everyday lives. We must take responsibility for setting a tone of non-violence in our nation. Interaction by interaction, we must transform the present moment into a cauldron of peace. This is the long but necessary road – indeed the only road – to the peaceful society we wish to inhabit.    Of course, Murphy insisted that we bump into this family at least half a dozen times on our mountain adventure. Not only that, but whilst having lunch at a wine estate 2 days later, they were sitting at the next door table! We will be presented with the challenge time and again until we listen and drop the stone. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.