The picture of George Floyd being murdered clutches at my heart – as indeed it has clutched the heart of hundreds of thousands of protesting people across America and other parts of the world.
Sadly, I am not new to protests nor police brutality in the face of those protests. I spent most of my life in South Africa where apartheid and all it entailed ruled supreme for too long. Scenes of protest marches turning into massacres were reported all over the world – Sharpeville perhaps being the one that seared itself most dramatically on the minds of the watching world. If anything, matters got worse in South Africa after Sharpeville – but it was, I think, a turning point. Maybe, just maybe, the George Floyd murder will also be a turning point in American history.
I worked at a university in South Africa which was designated ‘white’ until freedom came in 1994 but was at least part of a small group of “liberal” universities. We all had to deal with increasingly draconian measures after Sharpeville until the late 1980s when pressure started to build for radical change. Much of the pressure was evidenced by protest marches in the name of one cause or grievance. Many of those marches got out of hand, sometimes because people who had other agendas used the event to further their own ends – but more often because the reason for the march was not addressed and some reasonable way forward not found.
Achieving freedom in South Africa without a bloody conflict was seen as almost miraculous and Nelson Mandela hailed as a truly great leader. Even then, the country still had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear and redress at least some of the awful crimes committed during those long years of struggle.
Clearly the protests rocking America are vast in number and being managed by multiple agencies – but there seem to me to be some basic mistakes made at leadership level. Is it asking too much that there be some acknowledgement that there is some systemic problem that needs addressing? Is it asking too much that civic leaders be called to come together and forge a way forward, perhaps city by city, state by state? Is it asking too much of a president that he be seen to be leading such efforts to seek some unity in finding a solution?
It defies belief that the leader of “the free world” could only come up with two ideas:
- Threaten the protesters with military action – which is probably unconstitutional; and
- Stand in front of a boarded up church and wave a bible at the cameras. This must be as bizarre a sight of an American president as one could possibly imagine. But it is also a sight that might represent a turning point. Waving goodbye to his re-election, and ushering in a true leader who will address the grievous racism in his country.