While putting together a work document some months ago, I asked a colleague for details regarding an incident where she was intimidated and chased by a protesting mob while covering a story in one of Port Elizabeth’s townships earlier this year. Her response was astonishing.
“Do you mean the time when I was pelted with stones or the time I was chased with a knife?” she asked. I could not help but laugh. Not because I found it funny. It was an uncanny reaction to the sheer horror of realising just how normalised violence – politically motivated violence in particular – is in our country.
It has increasingly become the language of choice for those who believe they have no other means to achieve their desired social outcome.
It is the unfortunate modus operandi of those who lack the mental capacity to challenge political opponents through incisive discourse.
It is in this context that we ought to understand the bloody brawl that unfolded in the Nelson Mandela Bay council chambers last week.
Ask any of the councillors present at that meeting on Thursday and you are bound to hear different versions of what transpired, depending on which side of the political spectrum they fall.
This is where the police and the courts will hopefully help us piece together every detail of what was, by all accounts, an unprecedented episode of savagery in the history of this council.
In this column, I will not engage the details of what happened on that day until an authentic investigation is concluded and a verdict on the matter is pronounced by our courts.
For now, I wish to draw your attention to the fact that the incident itself, while shocking, did not occur in a vacuum.
It is the latest symptom of an ailing body politic where meaningful debate of contesting ideas has given way to violence and intimidation.
The picture is similar across the countr y.
In July, police minister Nathi Nhleko reported that 25 cases of politically related violence had been reported to the police since Januar y.
That is an average of three incidents reported every month.
That’s three families suffering in various ways at the hands of political criminals every month for the first half of this year.
The incidents include 14 cases of murder and attempted murder, two of arson and two of public violence.
Others related to assault and the firing of a firearm, damage to property and culpable homicide.
And these are only those cases Nhleko was presented with by the police.
They do not include frequent incidents that occur in this city where journalists, members of different political parties and even those of opposing factions within the same party are intimidated, threatened or assaulted.
They do not include several councillors or municipal officials who have often been terrorised or had their homes burnt down by thugs who believe that even in this democracy, such behaviour is a legitimate form of retaliation against poor services.
While circumstances surrounding each case are different, a common thread runs through all of these incidents.
And that is a prevailing lack of consequences, which creates an environment where anarchy is not only permissible, it becomes our way of life.
From here on, dear reader, the slippery slope down mayhem highway begins.
This is precisely where we have degenerated to – a dangerous place where insults easily pass as revolutionary rhetoric.
Where those who feel aggrieved unleash violent rage, reducing innocent victims to mere collateral damage in their exercise of political expediency.
Where lawlessness has become our norm and the very idea of leadership accountability is sneered upon as a form of oppression.
A culture where hurling glasses during a council meeting and smashing each other’s heads open becomes a tolerable means with which we claim to defend ourselves and enforce our ideas.
I believe that much of the troubles we face can be traced back to a leadership vacuum.
We allowed those whose conduct and integrity is so ridiculously poor to ascend to the very positions of power once reserved for only the best among us.
It stands to reason, therefore, that no questionable leadership can ever exercise discipline over its constituency. It is at this point that men and women who define themselves as leaders of society pay lip-service to the idea of condemning violence, yet celebrate as revolutionaries those implicated in barbaric acts.
We live in a country where our constitution declares that all who are accused of a crime are innocent until proven guilty. But do not be fooled. This by no means relieves our leaders of their moral duty to readily denounce any form of violence – through words and deeds – regardless of the circumstances under which it occurs.
In fact, this is part of the reason why mob justice, for example, can never be justified in our democracy.
With a past such as ours, the devastating consequences of brutality should never escape our minds.
Violence cannot be the default position from which we depart in an attempt to resolve conflict. We should know better. There is nothing revolutionary about violence.
It is, frankly, cowardice.