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What is the reason for the looting and violence rocking South Africa?

People looted Letsoho shopping centre in Katlehong on Monday. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

People looted Letsoho shopping centre in Katlehong on Monday. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 13, 2021


Khwezi Mabasa

Community protests and social conflict are not new in post-apartheid South Africa.

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These two trends have been prevalent in local governance for the past 27 years, and they often result in violence or destruction of social infrastructure.

This is ironic if one examines research on access to basic services, which illuminates improved household access to water, energy and sanitation.

South Africa is a democratic country that protects basic civil liberties and provides ample opportunities for citizens to express collective discontent.

Yet, social unrest is rife in working-class areas across the country.

This raises a fundamental question: why do community protests continue in a democratic country, which has made some gains in redistributing public goods?

The simple answer to this question reduces all community protests to criminality and anti-social behaviour.

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It suggests that increasing policing in rural and township areas shall resolve the problem.

But this approach has not yielded positive results, and we need to conduct a deeper analysis of protests that considers the following factors.

First, we need to address the persistent socio-economic exclusion and inequality in our society.

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It is primarily expressed in unemployment, inequality, food insecurity and poverty.

Our understanding of crime, violence and anti-social behaviour must be rooted in sociological analyses .

We cannot separate criminality from socio-economic exclusion, inequality and class factors.

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This is well documented in publications exploring the link between human development indicators and social conflict in urban townships or rural areas.

There is an underlying class basis for the social unrest that deserves immediate attention from policymakers.

I am not suggesting that class is the only catalysts for social conflict, but it is significant for a holistic investigation.

A good starting point would be to examine black livelihoods broadly, beyond the confines of formal labour and business markets.

Unemployed and marginalised citizens are not passive beings waiting for state assistance.

They engage in varied forms of livelihood practices, which assist them to eke out a living.

The current lockdown measures and historic exclusion from local economic development planning support have restricted this economy activity.

Policy solutions that overlook these livelihood practices will perpetuate social conflict in these areas.

Second, it is not useful to homogenise black citizens in townships.

There are class, cultural, political and elite network cleavages in these communities.

A colonial reading of black subjectivity misses this point and presents fixed solutions that cannot be applied in all local contexts.

Jacob Dlamini reminds us about these social cleavages in his book: Native Nostalgia.

These intra township disparities develop around socio-economic, identity and political patronage networks in some cases.

This subsequently leads to uneven distribution of resources, with legislated process for public service delivery undermined.

The MISTRA 2014 publication on localised patronage politics and poverty was very instructive.

It illuminated how ethnic, political party, corrupt business and criminal networks fuel social unrests by shifting public resources towards sectarian interests.

The local state becomes the primary site of contestation, as it determines access to employment, business contracts and regulatory benefits.

Patronage, in all its forms, divides communities while exacerbating the social conditions driving protests.

A third point to consider is how we characterise or describe community protests in South Africa.

The catch all “service delivery” or “xenophobic” protest descriptions are not analytically useful.

Research into community social unrests proves that the catalysts for protest are more complex and varied.

Policymakers will not understand these complexities without meaningfully engaging community leaders or grounded research.

This approach moves us beyond the short-term perspective that often erases long-standing historic, socio-economic and political challenges in these localities.

Last, we need an open and frank discussion about citizenship identity and social cohesion.

Government policy is anchored around building a socially cohesive nation through a common citizenship identity.

Yet, lived experiences and demands in social protests counter this proposition.

This is not a peculiar working-class phenomenon, as illustrated by the calls for decolonisation and the racist conflicts in urban areas.

MISTRA’s 2019 social cohesion found that there ‘was widespread feeling among our participants that South Africans do not have a shared understanding of our history, nor do they agree on who has (or has not) benefited from the transition’.

The nation building question in South Africa is contested and continues to divide society, especially at the local level.

We need to address the underlying class, identity, cultural and political factors causing this country-wide division.

Our point of departure should be eliminating varied forms of exclusion and systemic inequality.

This is where I depart from the liberal social cohesion approach, which reduces nation building to a moral question without questioning existing structural power relations in society.

* Mabasa is a senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.