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Persistent apartheid geography and inequality a threat to democratic SA non-racialism

Poverty, youth unemployment and social reality of pain and despair as well as leadership crisis and weakened institutions of the state are at the heart of these challenges, Somadoda Fikeni writes. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Poverty, youth unemployment and social reality of pain and despair as well as leadership crisis and weakened institutions of the state are at the heart of these challenges, Somadoda Fikeni writes. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 1, 2021


By Somadoda Fikeni

Current reported racial tensions between the largely Indian communities and surrounding areas such as Bhambayi in the aftermath of riots that broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng after the former president, Jacob Zuma, was incarcerated, is a microcosm of many unresolved issues of apartheid geography that have persisted into the new democratic South Africa.

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At the heart of these tensions is deepening inequality, mainly along racial and neighbouring community lines.

Poverty, youth unemployment and social reality of pain and despair as well as leadership crisis and weakened institutions of the state are at the heart of these challenges.

South Africa is at a forked road where this deep crisis could provide real opportunity for multi-stakeholders and social partners seizing the moment to look for sustainable solutions, or it may be a slippery slope toward decay and dysfunctionality, all depending on difficult choices that need to be made urgently.

Current investigations, community watch clubs and the presence of security forces is an immediate response to manage this crisis, but it is not sustainable, hence the need to deal with underlying issues between neighbouring communities - especially those predominantly representative of different racial groups.

This is the ultimate test of leadership and society in pursuit of the aspirations of a non-racial and just SA.

South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history has largely been around racial conflict expressed through European conquest, dispossession and oppression of the black majority for almost three-and-a-half centuries.

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It is this history that shaped the geography of human settlement and access to resources, as well as the struggles for emancipation that ensued.

South Africa’s democratic transition that commenced in 1994 was meant to end the legacy of colonial/apartheid racial inequality and injustice through the creation of a just, non-racial, prosperous, inclusive and united society, as articulated and codified in the preamble of our 1996 Constitution.

In essence, this is meant to balance historical redress for social justice, while at the same time striving for unity.

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Championed by Nelson Mandela, the founding president of South Africa’s democratic era, national reconciliation, non-racialism and the creation of an inclusive society took off on a promising start, such as the adoption of a new, progressive constitution, setting of institutions of democracy, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, affirmative action recruitment programmes, black economic empowerment policies, the Reconstruction and Development Programme that saw social infrastructure and services expanded to the previously excluded black majority.

Leadership initially demonstrated responsiveness and vision in their outlook and commitment. The world embraced what had been a pariah state into what became a paragon of virtue and beacon light of hope as a benchmark for many societies that were still trapped in civil strife seeking models for conflict resolution and reconstruction.

It did not take long before South Africa’s democratic experiment faltered and took a detour. The ruling political class started to suffer from the “sins of incumbency” and social distance between leaders and people widened, arrogance of power, corruption and patronage network entrenchment, crass materialism, obsession with factional battles and party affairs over national interests became a defining feature of a floundering democratic project.

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South Africa became one of the most unequal countries in the world, surpassing even Brazil, inter-generational poverty worsened and youth unemployment escalated to crisis proportions, racism and racial tensions resurfaced as identity politics and populism mobilising around racial and ethnic cleavages became common cause.

The legacy of colonial/apartheid spatial planning and unequal distribution of resources worsened.

Indlulamithi South Africa Scenarios 2030 has identified the following key drivers of the current crisis in the country:

1. Leadership and institutional capacity: leadership crisis in government, the business sector, civil society, trade union movement, political parties and youth formations have squandered the democratic moment and deepened the crisis. Weakness of institutional capacity, especially that of government, has allowed for poor service delivery leading to service delivery protests, corruption and patronage, and non-implementation of policies. Poor, unco-ordinated and contradictory reactions from the security cluster to the recent riots and looting bears testimony to this reality.

2. Social inequality: Black majority, particularly the African majority and coloured communities, are still at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, bearing the brunt of all social ills and economic crises. Poverty, youth unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, violent crime, including gender-based violence, food insecurity, crisis in the education and health systems, landlessness and lack of service delivery frequently afflict this segment of the population.

3. Resentment, resistance and reconciliation: Those most disadvantaged by the social and economic ills as well as leadership crises generally respond through resentment and resistance, thus pushing reconciliation further down as people insist on peace with justice.

Whereas the trigger for the recent riots and widespread opportunistic looting was the arrest of the former president, Jacob Zuma, the underlying, deep structural problem is deepening inequality, which has been worsened by Covid-19 pandemic.

In future there may be different trigger points, as we have seen violent protests and looting as well as burning of properties before. The killing of more than 20 people in the areas bordering Phoenix and surrounding black communities and informal settlements simply brought to the surface unresolved socio-economic disparities of apartheid geography that manifest themselves racially between the Indian and Black African communities.

Current interventions and investigations may restore calm for the moment, but more sustainable solutions that address underlying socio-economic disparities of closely neighbouring communities is key. These communities have experienced periodic racial conflicts going back to the 1949 riots.

Racial incidents or attacks around the country have also produced similar racial tensions, as we saw on the beaches of Cape Town, the racial incidents in schools, tensions around farm murders and treatment of farm workers, racial discrimination in corporates such as the Clicks store incident.

At universities the Rhodes Must Fall campaigns also reflected persisting racial tensions born out of unresolved underlying issues.

The killings of black Africans in the vicinity of communities surrounding Phoenix has both the specific context of recurring tensions between the communities, but is also reflective of what is happening across the country. If poorly handled, it could evolve into racial tensions in the area and vigilantism could become the order of the day if security forces fail to assert their role.

KZN is home to the biggest concentration of Indians outside India, and management of the Phoenix and surrounding community tensions will have a ripple effect across the province. In the immediate period it will be managed through current criminal investigations and security forces camped in the area, but in the long run reconstruction and inter-community peace and reconciliation will be more sustainable and could be replicated across society if successfully implemented.

A divided ANC leadership in the province and nationally, fragmented security cluster and weak intelligence as well as persistent inequalities are not good indicators for a bold, visionary, sustainable intervention in resolving these challenges, at least in the immediate future.

Coming local government elections, provincial and regional ANC leadership contests and court cases for some, 2022 ANC leadership contests and deepening economic crisis and what may be an immediate food crisis in the province place added pressure on leaders to focus on this flashpoint, and yet failure to manage and resolve it will have wider implications. Will Phoenix and surrounding communities rise from the proverbial ashes or will ambers of inter-communal tension remain?

* Somadoda Fikeni is a visiting professor at Nelson Mandela University, an associate professor at the Thabo Mbeki School for Public and International Affairs at Unisa and a member of the Public Service Commission. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.