South Africa is burning. It’s not yet a conflagration, but to ignore its potential to become one would be a terrible mistake.
Unless our government summons the political courage to deal with public violence, South Africa is edging towards a tipping point.
The militancy and rage can be called resistance. Or revolution. Call it insurrection. Or cloak it in the euphemism of “angry protest”.
Whatever the terminology of the propagandists and the apologists, the situation is poised. The sporadic community violence that has been bubbling nationwide for years appears to becoming more frequent, more brazen, more organised and more directed at securing specific political outcomes.
The problem needs to be addressed, but the police seem to lack the ability to do anything, while the ANC seems to lack the courage to do anything. Into that vacuum slide the firebrands, the criminals and the political hyenas.
I wrote the above passage of analysis well over a year ago. They were despairing words but carefully weighed. They bear repetition because these feelings are increasingly widespread. Even activists, who soldiered through the valleys of apartheid despair, feel overwhelmed and betrayed.
Columnist Dave Bullard wrote this week that “a heavy cloud of hopelessness and helplessness hangs over South Africa I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such gloom among my fellow countrymen”.
Also this week, Institute of Race Relations’ analyst Gareth van Onselen sketched online an apocalyptic vision of a low-grade civil war. “There is the ANC, and the people. And they are at each other’s throat. It is not metaphorical, but real. Blood is being spilt.”
There can be little doubt that, so far, Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn has proved illusory. State capture under the former president’s encouragement - and the present president’s condonation - is estimated at over a trillion rands. But that’s the least of it. There is virtually not an international economic or social-health comparator South Africa has not sagged against. There is not a moral or ethical standard that we have not betrayed. The country is literally grinding to a halt.
In the 2017/2018 financial year, arson attacks cost the Passenger Rail Agency close on a billion rands with 1496 rail carriages destroyed, with virtually no arrests. Countrywide, in the past year, around 1300 truck-and-trailer rigs have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, with direct economic costs of about R1.3bn and 213 deaths.
Mirroring in miniature the implosion at a national level of almost all South Africa’s giant state-owned entities, local government is on its knees. Some three-quarters of municipalities need urgent intervention to avoid collapse, while a third are bankrupt.
These are omens of nationwide collapses that will increase existing levels of township protest and violence and will sorely test the government’s ability to maintain public order.
These developments, I wrote in that column, 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.
Last year a Human Sciences Research Council survey of attitudes in North West province found that 13% endorsed violent actions as an instrument of change. An IRR survey this year found that 40% of voters believed that violent protest was the only way to get service delivery.
William Gumede, associate professor of governance at Wits, wrote this week that “black victimhood” is being used as an excuse to avoid accountability. “Black leaders are increasingly using colonialism, apartheid and Western ‘imperialism’ to cover their incompetence, mismanagement and corruption.”
Songezo Zibi, former editor of Business Day, writing online this week, offers nought for our comfort. “Until there is a new political school of thought that seeks to build social structures that deepen accountability, our situation will not improve. We shall continue to degenerate, risking violent social upheaval.”
A Canadian journalist friend used post-1994 to say that South Africans were the most absurdly optimistic people that she had ever met. That optimism is shrivelling, turning sour on the vine.
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