Opinion / 19 May 2018, 1:00pm / William Saunderson-Meyer
South Africa is burning. It’s not yet a conflagration, but to ignore its potential to become one would be a terrible mistake. The fiery eruptions are claimed to be about failed service delivery, or corruption, or too little policing. Or, in the case of taxi protests, too much policing. Or the wrong cadre in the job. Or all of the above.
You can call the result resistance. Call it revolution or insurrection. Or cloak it in euphemism: “Angry protests that degenerated”.
Whatever the terminology of the propagandists, on the one hand, and the apologists on the other, the situation is poised. The sporadic community violence that has been bubbling for years appears to be getting more frequent, more brazen, more organised, and more directed at securing specific outcomes.
Action has to be taken, but the SAPS lacks the ability to do anything, while the ANC lacks the courage to do anything. Into that lacuna slide the firebrands, the criminals, and the political hyenas.
In North West, for the past two months, there has been ongoing violence, with tyre-burning, shop-looting mobs that demanded the exit of the province’s premier. Union vigilantes have barricaded hospitals and clinics, not allowing staff or patients access.
The police have responded cautiously. In April, there reportedly were 400 arrests, but very few since, as President Cyril Ramaphosa seeks a political solution.
In KwaZulu-Natal, a fortnight ago, the N3 highway - the umbilical cord joining Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse, to Durban, Africa’s busiest port - was closed for almost 48 hours. What the media forgivingly terms “protesters” looted and set alight 35 long-haul trucks, causing hundreds of millions of rands of losses.
It was the second such incident within days, yet the police were caught flat-footed. They could arrest only 54 people, not even in the act but afterwards, during a search for looted goods. Only six had to appear in court, charged with theft.
In the Western Cape this week, a Muizenberg restaurant was firebombed by what Afrovoice called “illegal land invaders” - as opposed, presumably, to the “legal” land invaders that are punted by radicals. Cars were stoned, several buildings set alight, and two councillors briefly held hostage.
The damage was about R8million. Two arrests were made.
These are only some recent, dramatic incidents. There are many more. They flare briefly in the consciousness of a media which, on the whole, has the attention span of a gnat and the analytical focus of a firefly.
Yet, cumulatively, they are pushing an unheeding South Africa along a dangerous path. No government can allow sustained, spreading public violence by its citizenry. Especially not when this changes from being relatively spontaneous venting to being a calculated political strategy. Not if it hopes to remain the government.
A Human Sciences Research Council survey of attitudes of North West gives a glimpse of where we are headed. Fewer than a fifth of the respondents thought peaceful demonstrations could bring change, while 13% endorsed violence as an effective instrument of change.
In an interview with me, one of the researchers, Jare Struwig, agrees that this is a disturbingly high statistic in a democracy. “The government faces a real challenge, since there are radical groups in our politics that endorse the rhetoric of militancy and violent conflict,” she says.
The ANC faces this challenge with, by its own volition, its hands tied. Whatever the immediate causes of riotous behaviour, the fact that most South Africans are living in poverty-wracked squalor, with no prospects of relief, provides ready justification for a complicit tolerance of public violence.
As Professor Susan Booysen of the University of the Witwatersrand puts it in a Daily Maverick article: “This is a guilt-ridden government that knows it shares responsibility for failing its people and enters elections on the grace of forgiveness of continuously disadvantaged citizens.” For this reason, “it cannot afford to be seen acting against the poor”.
Booysen cites as evidence the “hesitant tones” of the KZN MEC for Community Safety, Mxolisi Kaunda: “People must understand that we are still a country with laws, so we can’t break them and expect that nothing will be done. We are calling on the community to make sure that we calm the situation.”
More telling than Kaunda, in my view, was Police Minister Bheki Cele’s response. He refused to answer press inquiries on the N3 riot, except to refer them to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande. No doubt when it’s factories and warehouses being torched, he’ll direct inquiries to Trade Minister Rob Davies.
This is not a new phenomenon. The ANC has always been a schizophrenic creature, with one group enacting legislation,while another group will simultaneously be marching against those very same laws, baying angry defiance.
But while such an evasion of responsibility is predictable, it is no longer sustainable.
Unless the government summons the courage to deal with violence, South Africa is heading for a tipping point. Those vulnerable to easy scapegoating on account of their “privilege” - foreigners, the employed, ethnic minorities in general and white farmers in particular - should be worried.
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