When Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge saw the footage of George Floyd dying at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, “it was difficult for me to imagine that such violence could happen from someone in uniform in a country I regarded as a free country.”
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a Friend in Residence at Haverford College, sees police violence in the United States and is reminded of her time as an activist in apartheid-era South Africa—where she first heard the Quaker message of nonviolent resistance.
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One thing that I noticed here in North America right now, as we are visiting here at a very difficult time — we’re at Haverford College where I’m a Friend in Residence– when the State itself is taking the power– the God given power– to take away life, it sends a very wrong message to the people. This reminded me– it took me back to our own situation in South Africa 30 years ago.
A Quaker Response to State-Sponsored Violence
My name is Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, I live in Cape Town, and I’m a member of the Quaker Community of the Western Cape. My name is Jeremy Routledge, I live in Cape Town, and I’m a member of the Quaker Community in the Western Cape.
At the time when I became involved with Quakers there was a lot of violence in my country, in South Africa. I was an activist in the struggle to end apartheid and we were faced with an onslaught of state-sponsored violence in our community, and when I met Jeremy we often spoke about a way to respond to the violence. And of course people were arming themselves– activists were arming themselves, protecting their communities in that way because they could be attacked at any time in the night.
So, we had very vigorous discussions about how to respond to the violence. I had joined the African National Congress, the ANC, which had itself adopted violence as a means to respond to the government– the state. So I remember one conversation I had with Jeremy where he was insisting that it was never correct to use violence to respond to violence. I related to this and I think I got attracted to this idea of responding nonviolently, even though I don’t think I was completely convinced at the time. So going to Quakers for me was very, very important because it confirmed what I think was deep in my own personal understanding of violence and nonviolence, and my strengths grew in this and I find that is the only answer.
So, at that time when I joined as an attender there was a growing opposition to the apartheid system in South Africa. I had helped to establish a woman’s organization called the Natal Organisation of Women, which came together annually to commemorate the role of women in the struggle to end apartheid. I worked closely with women, we formed this organization, which affiliated to the United Democratic Front.
So it was a very busy time for us: we marched in the streets; we called for the release of Nelson Mandela, who was serving a very long prison sentence; we asked for the unbending of our organizations that had been bent in the early 60s. So coming to Quakers was, in some ways, a space for me to be quiet because it was very noisy out there.
My first introduction to Quakerism was meeting one of four Quakers in Durban, where I lived– the only one under 60 years old– and she had been in Philadelphia at the Movement for a New Society and came back with lots of wonderful ideas, which I found fascinating.
In the 70s, the Soweto (the government) called them riots, others called them a peaceful protest, which was attacked; it galvanized South Africa into White people questioning what was going on. A large number of my colleagues, friends, immigrated to Australia or New Zealand, but I didn’t think of leaving and I started collecting newspaper cuttings and the church seemed to be playing an important role, and then I came across a conscientious objector– the church had a series of pamphlets and I thought, “well, if you’re a Christian you must be a conscientious objector if you are White,” and I saw a role for myself as a White South African in doing that.
State-Sponsored Violence in the United States
It just brings back all of the pain after I observed the very disturbing image of a man who was crying out to the policeman, who had his knee on his neck, and he was crying out saying he couldn’t breathe. It was difficult for me to imagine that such violence could happen from someone in uniform in a country that I regard as a free country, and it seems to be state-sponsored violence. To me, I ask myself so is this in the training of the police that they are allowed to do this?
In South Africa, we adopted a policy after 1994 where we did away with capital punishment, and the idea behind this was that when the state itself is taking the power– the God given power — to take away life, it sends a very wrong message to the people because that is what capital punishment is. In this particular instance, the policeman took away someone’s life. So it is disturbing but it’s encouraging to see that so many people are coming out in such large numbers, not only in this country but around the world to protest this and to say, “Enough is enough. Black Lives Matter.”
- 1) How can we effectively use nonviolence when faced with violence, especially when it appears to be state led?
- 2) When reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, Nozizwe states, “It was difficult for me to imagine that such violence could happen from someone in uniform in a country that I regard as a free country, and it seems to be state-sponsored violence. To me, I ask myself… is this in the training of the police that they are allowed to do this?” What can Americans, and non-Americans, do to address state-sponsored police brutality? Do we reform, defund, abolish, or do something else entirely?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.