Sometimes an unjust killing reveals all the hidden scars of a nation. An innocent 16-year-old teenager, Nathaniel Julies, was shot dead by police on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 26 near Johannesburg. This violent act was remarkable for many reasons despite South Africa’s familiarity with violence: Nathaniel was merely on his way to buy a biscuit at a nearby shop, and was killed a few meters from his home, for no apparent reason. He was a popular kid who had Down’s syndrome—and everyone in the community loved him. He was often jovial and quick to burst into dance. His killing felt like one gratuitous police assault too many on the entire neighborhood.
The racial dynamics of this case—and of South Africa more generally—tend to confuse most outside observers. While the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is straightforwardly about Black people pushing back against anti-Black racism, South Africa’s situation is more complicated. The country’s apartheid and colonial histories introduced more fine-grained racial classifications that drew an administrative and sociopolitical wedge between Black people and so-called coloured people (mostly people of mixed heritage).
In Eldorado Park, the brutality of the largely Black police force left Nathaniel’s predominantly coloured community furious. The killing affirmed locals’ deeply held belief that they were marginalized and trampled on during the apartheid era under white supremacist rule, and now face a similar fate during the post-apartheid period under Black leaders. Their anger, in other words, stems in an important respect from the