After South Africa’s recent riots, justice and upholding the rule of law have never been more vital and there is no time to lose in addressing the country’s structural inequalities, writes Ivor Ichikowitz.
The dust has only recently begun to settle after one of the most harrowing assaults on South Africa’s stability, its economy and its social fabric.
Only days before we commemorated the annual legacy of our Rainbow Nation’s founder, ‘Nelson Mandela Day’, thousands of people descended upon our streets, making off with everything from essential foodstuffs to luxury items.
In the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, entire shopping centres were burned to the ground after looters ransacked them, costing the nation over $3bn of damages in total, shaving nearly 1% off our headline GDP growth for 2021 in a near instant, while leaving hundreds injured or dead.
What has happened in South Africa this week has been a confluence of many factors and causes: Former President Jacob Zuma being jailed on a contempt charge that he caused himself; a cabal of politically connected crooks realising that the tide was finally turning in favour of Ramaphosa’s new dawn, because of the confidence he has given to organs of state that had been hollowed out; and the existence of an incredibly downtrodden mass of people without jobs or any hopes of ever being employed.
When infrastructure began to be targeted, with schools torched, community radio stations ransacked of their equipment and major economic distribution centres burned to the ground, when people were being dropped off at strategic locations with petrol in hand to start fires, it was clear that this was not a popular uprising fuelled by the anger and hopelessness of, for example, the 75% of youth unemployed throughout the country.
This was not just a natural response to the scenario of a country with the highest inequality rate in the world.
Let’s be clear. This was not being done for the poor of South Africa, but an attempt to foment civil war; a chance for a small group of individuals to escape being held accountable for their own acts of corruption – and then benefit economically from the chaos they themselves helped create.
Quintessentially South African
But then something quintessentially South African happened. South Africans began standing up and stated: “Not in my name!” As the chaos threatened to destroy the provincial economy of KwaZulu-Natal and bring the economic powerhouse of Gauteng to a standstill, the contagion was contained – and ultimately neutralised – by the will of the people.
In the absence of obvious police intervention, communities started self-organising; people formed human chains around shopping centres to stop them from being demolished. Taxi drivers, the essential private/public transport solution in a country bereft of a proper public transport system, and the bane of every other road user, emerged as unexpected guardians of public spaces and shops.
Other community organisations formed roadblocks, stopping cars entering townships and checking them for contraband, effecting citizen’s arrests and confiscating loot where necessary.
In many ways, it hearkened back to the community activism of the 1980’s, when the mobilisation of the people internally was as great a weapon in the struggle against Apartheid as the international isolation of the regime.
As I submit this column, many of the same newly-created organisations are still hard at work, cleaning up the mess that the criminals had caused. In many cases, they’ve been joined by other South Africans: White, Coloured and Indian, all picking up brooms and getting to work in trashed township shopping centres – or if not there in-person, giving money to help the needy and start the process of rebuilding.
There is also a reckoning presently at hand; upholding the rule of law is sacrosanct to preserving the social fabric of any democracy, and our 27-year-old democracy is no different.
An organised mobilisation campaign, utilising guerrilla-style tactics not unlike those that existed under the previous Apartheid system – however in this case, executed across social media – has reportedly been behind much of the uprising; and now, the perpetrators behind it are being held responsible.
It has been further reported that organisations such as the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) forces, indeed incited targeted violence that spread through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng like a wave of terror, utilising hash-tags such as #cyrilmustresign, #freejacobzuma and #shutdownSA, on social media to crowdsource and bring criminality to centralised locations.
Case in point, there was a well-coordinated attack on ATM machines during the unrest. These machines were not attacked by the masses. Organised criminals used the chaos as cover to professionally extract cash from ATMs, then using the cash to pay off more criminals to create more chaos, a strategy applied during the days of Apartheid.
A new social contract
As we move on from the wreckage of this week, we are faced with two certainties: that justice and upholding the rule of law has never been more vital than it is now, and there is no time left to lose to address the structural inequalities that are only getting worse in South Africa – this is our biggest challenge as we face our new dawn.
We have to create a new social compact. We have to create sustainable jobs. Business has to work with the government to create public-private partnerships (PPPs) to recapacitate and transform a public service that has become bloated, overpaid and inept.
While South Africa presently undertakes what has been recorded to be one of the slowest post-Covid economic recoveries in the world, we cannot look back; we have to create hope once again.
South Africa is a phenomenal country, with its own unique paradoxes and contradictions. However its people, not its enviable mineral wealth or natural resources, are its greatest jewels.
Many of those people have, tragically, been sorely treated by wave after wave of unfulfilled and often cynical promises by our government. Promised a better life, jobs and houses that would never come, leaving millions waiting as the gap between the masses and the empowered elites metastasised into a massive tumour that just threatened the lifeforce of this nation.
In Africa, veld fires are known as terrifying phenomena that raze everything in their path, leaving swathes of devastation; but then, with the rains that inevitably follow, come the green shoots of brand-new growth.
Yes, we have immense challenges. Many of them remain unresolved after decades of colonialism and decades of Apartheid. Most of them have been worsened by a decade of kleptocracy, which festered under the surface of our day-to-day lives until it finally tested our collective mettle. The government can’t fix these issues on its own.
But we also have the greatest asset of all – the resilience of a nation which has often threatened to splinter into its constituent parts but to date, thankfully, never has.
South Africa 2.0
This has been our darkest hour, but we can take solace from the fact that it is always followed by the brightest new dawn. If we are to achieve this, we have to work together, all of us, whether we are here at home or part of the South African expatriate diaspora that reaches to every corner of the globe.
As we have seen in the kindness and humanity that followed the destruction, there is no action that is too small or too insignificant if it is positive.
During these events, the evil that lurks beneath exposed itself – and was met by the good that is the true character of this wonderful country. A very real outcome of that will be a further strengthening of vital institutions that were hollowed out in the ‘State Capture’ era. This week this young country passed its greatest stress test actually, with flying colours.
Nelson Mandela and his generation bequeathed us the blueprint for a future in which South Africa belongs to all who live in it, with equal and equitable access to all its wealth for the benefit of all. It is incumbent upon us to start building South Africa 2.0, a generation later.
The good news is that there are many of us determined to do just that.