NEWS

Coligny Is Not An Anomaly -- It Is SA Unfolding

The stories of how this town came to symbolise a national crisis shouldn't disappear as fast as journalists do.

10/05/2017 10:01 SAST | Updated 15/05/2017 07:32 SAST

An armed agent of the state lusting to unleash rubber bullets and stun grenades on a nameless and violent angry mob.

Harrowing soundbites on the 6 p.m. news.

Then flames turn to ash and the gaze of a bewildered nation – furious then numb – shifts to the next damning upsurge in violence.

I returned to Thlabologang, hoping to speak to some of these residents about their outstanding grievances and their hopes for the future.

Coligny, the most recent South African town to be engulfed in flames and unbridled rage, was a blip on the national radar just a few weeks ago.

Now, following weeks of violence, fury and rolling coverage of its unfolding crisis, a few hours of ominous calm cloaked the embattled North West dorp while community leaders met to negotiate a way forward.

Mujahid Safodien / AFP / Getty Images
Pieter Doorewaard (L) and Philip Schutte (R), accused of murdering 16-year-old Moswi Matlhomala Moshoeu, attend their bail application hearing in Coligny on May 8, 2017. Violent clashes erupted in the remote northwestern farming community in South Africa after two white farmers accused of murdering 16-year-old Moswi Matlhomala Moshoeu were granted bail. Residents of Coligny took to the streets after the court decision, burning down a white family's home and heightening racial tensions that erupted after the teen's death.

Still reeling from the alleged murder of 16-year-old Matlhomola Moshoeu by two white farmers in the largely agricultural town, residents broke the silence soon after the Tuesday meeting. A crowd gathered at the Tlhabologang sports grounds outside the town and unleashed their verbal wrath on North West Community Safety MEC Mpho Motlhabane as he relayed the meeting's resolutions.

Just a short while after police spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone said progress had been made and no further incidents were anticipated, many black residents – seemingly at the end of their tether – made it clear they would not keep quiet until justice had been served.

Crowds soon dispersed and journalists returned to the town centre, while a police helicopter circled above and armoured vehicles patrolled the outskirts of Coligny. Once the dust began to settle, I returned to Thlabologang, hoping to speak to some of these residents about their outstanding grievances and their hopes for the future.

A brief discussion with those willing to talk swiftly became a shouting match as well over a hundred people approached me from various directions. Many of those who approached, young and clearly irate, verbalised their deep discontent with the presence of a white journalist or another white man.

"Don't worry about these people," a young man said to me, hoping to speak to the camera about the commmunity's breakdown in trust with key political leaders. "They don't understand who you are, but I know you're doing your job and you need the freedom to tell [the] story," he said.

We can't go on. They will shoot usA woman escorting HuffPost journalist Marc Davies out of the township.

Within minutes, some of those hostile to my presence there demanded that I leave, with one person pushing me aside while others -– aware the situation was degenerating -– suggested I follow them to the police.

A hasty march with some residents towards officers gathered in the distant veld along the train track ended abruptly. "We can't go on. They will shoot us," a woman said to me, anxiously stopping in her tracks.

Mujahid Safodien / AFP / Getty Images
South African riot police deploy in Coligny following clashes that erupted after a court bailed two men accused of killing a boy on May 8, 2017. Violent clashes erupted in the remote northwestern farming community in South Africa after two white farmers accused of murdering 16-year-old Moswi Matlhomala Moshoeu were granted bail. Residents of Coligny took to the streets after the court decision, burning down a white family's home and heightening racial tensions that erupted after the teen's death.

I wondered if I had been a black journalist whether my brisk walk to the police out of the township would have attracted rubber bullets.

As I climbed into an armoured police vehicle I thought the escort to my car would be brief and incognito. But it became a riotous journey through a community still at boiling point.

Throughout the township, far beyond where I was approached, piles of rubbish were engulfed in flames. Rocks pummelling the vehicle were met with rubber bullets and stun grenades.

A police officer donned his riot gear, took my keys and drove my car to the perimeter, where a senior officer berated me for entering the township. "You could have died!" she yelled.

As I drove off I recalled the story of Baby Tshepang, whose rape as a nine-month-old in 2001 shocked the nation. In Lara Foot-Newton's play based on the true story, the protagonist Simon lambasts the flock of vulture journalists that descended on the township in the Northern Cape in the immediate aftermath. The township had "been raped many times over", he said, but the reporters were never there and disappeared hastily after the dust had settled.

I wonder if residents in Coligny, across racial and class divides for example, feel the same way about me or us as a collective?

I wonder if residents in Coligny, across racial and class divides for example, feel the same way about me or us as a collective? When a TV reporter outside the municipal offices impatiently remarked, "We're just here for a quick [sound]bite!", it struck me that many probably do.

I wonder if police who are provoked rather than provoke, as was unambiguous on Tuesday afternoon, and who risk their own lives to protect a journalist (whose questionable judgment led him into a tenuous situation) think this part of the story gets told? Or if those protestors willing to accompany journalists to safety in the face of impending violence are ever distinguished from those reported as the "angry, violent mob"?

Most clear is that Coligny –- a racially divided, economically precarious and poverty-stricken town –- is not an aberration. It is South Africa unfolding, a place in which the weight of the past and inadequacies of the present coalesce to fan the flames of outrage. The dust may soon settle here, but the stories of how this town came to symbolise a national crisis shouldn't disappear as fast as journalists do.