Socio-economic problems have played a part in civil unrest
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THERE has been widespread condemnation of the dark days of the past week, in particular the mass looting and destruction of property in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
However, opinions on factors which fuelled the unprecedented scenes we have witnessed are divided, depending on the perspective of the person providing the commentary and the platform on which they are doing so.
A recently published volume of essays titled Social Memory as a force for Social and Economic Transformation can help provide some answers to those who care to dig deeper into the socio-economic and political dynamics of our history, including where we are as a nation and how we move from here to achieve meaningful transformation.
The book, edited by Muxe Nkondo, and published by Freedom Park and Unisa Press, aims to promote heritage sites such as Freedom Park not only as places of memory where tribute is paid to the heroes of the Struggle, but as places where society can come together to reflect on how to solve the current challenges facing South Africa.
The contributions by Unisa academics and researchers from Freedom Park were penned before the current crisis but they add gravitas to conversations we need to have urgently as a result of it.
Nkondo asks how we confront the economic problems facing so many. “How do we achieve the full meaning of freedom and justice amid poverty, unemployment and inequality,” he writes, suggesting that social memory can offer some guidance in respect of how people draw on inspiration and lessons from the past.
President Cyril Ramaphosa – who admitted that the current violence has been fuelled by anger over socio-economic conditions – notes in his foreword to the book that it “helps us understand ourselves in the context of history, and our responsibility in terms of bringing about fundamental change as we negotiate the future”.
In his contribution, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa notes that while progress has been made towards reversing the legacy of apartheid, “economic inequality, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, landlessness, social or racial divisions and exclusion are realities we live with”.
Academic Vusi Gumedi of the University of Mpumalanga says in his essay that the socio-economic ramifications of apartheid, including discrimination and disempowerment, have reinforced recent developments in the country.
While the end of apartheid restored political rights, “memories of systemic dehumanisation and exploitation continue to cause anger and frustration among many black South Africans’, he writes.
“This has increased with the slow pace of change, growing poverty among blacks and dashed hopes.”
Add the current economic challenges and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic to the denial of equal education, land dispossession, segregated housing, limited access to economic resources and the institutionalisation of poverty, and one has the conditions for social strife, protests, looting, violent crime and GBV among others, Gumedi warns.
Modimowabara Kanyane calls for a reopening of the debate on social cohesion to confront the psychosocial troubles giving rise to hate, conflict and strife, including “issues of race and racism, the land question, struggles relating to economic transformation as well as ethnicity and tribalism”.
Unisa’s Zodwa Motsa highlights the challenges faced by post-apartheid society where colonial and racist statues may be “dead” but the thinking remains alive, where the human spirit has been broken and a chasm remains between the progenies of white settlers and Africans.
The thought is echoed by Phuleng Segalo, also of Unisa, who writes about the “fractured spirits and wounded souls” of South African people and asks what freedom – seen as a new beginning in 1994 – actually means to them in reality.
“South Africa has a dark past that affected people psychologically, spiritually and physically, and these aspects play a crucial role in how people behave in the present,” she says, noting that social ills such as crime, corruption and gender-based violence cannot be understood in isolation.
“To be able to genuinely engage with what it means to hold one another accountable, and to look for ways to truly move forward, we need to adopt an approach that requires taking responsibility and doing so from a position of justice, coupled with care (or ubuntu),” she argues.
As long as we have not grieved about the past, its inequalities and injustice exist and filter down to people’s everyday reality, and social cohesion is but a slogan.
In a country beset by exclusion, marginalisation and division, norms of acceptable individual behaviour are not widely shared while alternative norms hold sway, says Gumede.
Racism continues to impact on black lives and the failure to deliver quality public services, jobs and equality to the black majority has “amplified African angst”, he says.
His analysis of the “terrifying epidemic of all types of violence in democratic South Africa”, including domestic violence, gender-based violence, race-related violence and xenophobic violence, as well as incidents of “mob” violence or vigilantism feels prophetic considering the chaotic scenes of the past week.
Marcia Socikwa of Unisa and Lauren Marx of Freedom Park put the media under scrutiny. Socikwa highlights the fragmentation of the airwaves with radio and television used as a “tool of separation” by the National Party, with content segregated along racial and ethnic lines and the influence of local soap operas portraying “the worst shades of a troubled society”.
Marx, meanwhile, looks at press freedom, attacks on the media, the impact of smaller newsrooms and demands of multi-platform media as well as trust in the media.
A chapter by Olga Makhubela-Nkondo pays tribute to the lives of Fabian and Florence Ribeiro and their contribution to public health, child protection and education in Mamelodi, while Tinyiko Maluleke gives insight into the life and work of Desmond Tutu.
Professor Thenjiwe Mtintso considers “untold and misrepresented stories of women” in the Struggle for freedom and Muxe Nkondo takes on the role of science and technology for rural development.
Freedom Park researcher Tembeka Ngcebetsha-Mooij tackles the “unfinished business” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while Unisa’s Vuyisile Msila looks into the role of protest songs.