YOU cannot heal a country if you don’t know what you are trying to cure. Or if you believe that what is in your head is the country when logic says it isn’t.
It was inevitable and understandable that the violence in KwaZulu Natal and – to a much lesser extent – Gauteng should prompt many to try to make sense in public of what happened. It was equally understandable that many of the responses expressed deep distress. Nor was making out what had happened easy – it will be months or more before we have a clear picture of how all this was unleashed.
But none of this changes a core reality about the way the events were understood by the national debate – people made sense of events not by listening and trying to understand but by imposing on them ‘explanations’ which tell us much about the country’s politics but very little about the violence. This is a problem not simply because we need to understand our country, although we obviously do. The worry is that it is unlikely to produce the kind of debate which the country needs to prevent this happening again.
From Faction to Fiction
Seeing the events which triggered the violence through lenses which defied logic began before the mayhem. In the days after former President Zuma’s imprisonment, the mainstream debate became fixated on claims that it was ‘biased’ against him and his allies. This was not a rational discussion, for the Zuma camp view that there was bias was supported by less evidence than Donald Trump’s false charge that the US election was stolen from him.
There is nothing mysterious or debatable about Zuma’s conduct which sent him to prison. He was not forced to refuse to appear before the Zondo Commission, insisting, without evidence, that the chair, who he had appointed, was biased against him. The constitutional court was making no new law when it told him he, like anyone else summonsed by the commission, had to appear. No-one forced him to refuse to appear and to make clear that he would have nothing to do with routine legal processes. ‘White monopoly capital’ did not tell him to accuse judges of perverting justice without providing any evidence in support – the same judges he continued to rely on when it suited his purpose.
If pointing out that Zuma’s imprisonment was entirely self-inflicted is ‘bias’, then so too is mentioning that it is raining when some people would like to hold a picnic. This was not a difference of opinion on the legal system or what sort of country we should be. There was no radical new view which might challenge the complacent. Only an attempt to ensure that the law and the constitution apply to everyone except one man and his deeply loyal but quite small group of supporters. And yet this claim of ‘bias’ was treated, until the violence overwhelmed it, as a serious topic of discussion.
There is nothing wrong with a country’s debate arguing about whether it is biased. But what made this discussion grotesque is that there are real examples of bias in the national debate which are almost never discussed. We have no earnest discussions on whether the debate hears people who live in shacks or on farms. Nor on why we have national debates on land in which the landless are never heard. Political discussion in this country takes place only between the one in three people who are insiders and so get a hearing. Zuma and his allies are insiders, while shack dwellers, farm workers and landless people are not. The mainstream is willing to discuss bias only when insiders complain, not the two in three people who are not heard.
Once the violence began, logic faced sustained assault. One very predictable illogical was ‘the end of the world is nigh’ response. It is understandable that people who lost loved ones or traders whose world was destroyed should feel that the country was coming apart at the seams. But most of those who said this suffered no loss – they react that way, in great comfort, whatever happens. Logic tells us that the events sowed horrible human tragedy. But they devastated only one province, KZN, and caused damage in Gauteng which was severe but not very different to previous bouts. The violence was a setback the country needs to take very seriously. But, with the exception of some sinister realities in KZN, it was limited and did not mean something new and terrible was afoot.
It is important to point this out not to cheer people up or put a brave face on something awful. But there is a very deep-rooted response to threat among South African elites (and foreign commentators who like to pretend they understand a country whose basics elude them) which thrives on making the bad seem catastrophic, the difficult seem unfixable. It does not describe anything real – it simply makes those who indulge in it feel good. And it triggers no search for solutions: if the country is doomed, why look at ways to restore it?
The Theory of Poverty
A far more well-intentioned but also very common response was the poverty explanation.
The bulk of the violence, this claimed, was triggered by the desperation of people forced to live in a poverty worsened by Covid-19. Since poverty is one of this country’s core problems, and many are now desperate, this seemed credible. But it failed to explain much of the violence. It did account for much of the looting: this is hardly the only country in which riots offer opportunities to people who live in poverty to take goods they can use or sell. It does this also in countries beloved of the South-Africa-is-doomed chorus: the United States, Britain, France. Here, the looting took on a strange twist as some KZN residents arrived in cars to carry off electronics, suggesting that looting here also attracts the middle class. The country’s consumer culture is a great obstacle to progress: the debate prefers to engage in it than to discuss it. But, even so, most looters were indeed driven by poverty.
But poverty does not explain much of what happened in KZN. Poverty does not drive people to set fire to factories and businesses. Or to take vast amounts of ammunition. Or to set fire to malls which have already been looted. Or to attack infrastructure such as electricity installations. While there was much looting in KZN, much of the violence there was aimed at destruction, not addressing poverty, even for a few moments.
So, why would people living in poverty want to destroy in this way? Far more likely candidates are people whose political and economic hold on power is unravelling because they are losing the battle in the governing party and the law is closing in on them. Research has been showing for years that there are factors which could trigger a violent attempt to protect these interests. To name but only two examples. People threatened by the shift in power in government and the ANC include intelligence operatives (Zuma was ANC head of intelligence during the fight against apartheid) and, as we know from public displays, former guerrilla fighters. These are people with the means to cause great trouble. Current shifts in power threaten local political networks in which much money is at stake – if they disappear, so do local business mini-empires. Local councillors, mentioned as one source of the violence, are key elements in the networks with opportunities to make bad things happen.
It is surely more likely that such great damage was done in KZN because networks comprising only a few people saw their political and economic world crashing about them, decided to do something about this and had the means to do it than that people who live in poverty were mysteriously driven to burn and destroy. And yet the poverty explanation persists because it helps people make sense of the country, whatever logic says.
There are also less decent explanations doing the round in suburban circles – those which assume that black people are prone to mayhem, unlike peaceful white people who make atom bombs. These claims too are about what people hear in their heads, not what they see before their eyes. Because the debate is only for about three in ten adults, it reflects the pet theories, the fears and the beliefs of 30% of us. Because the 30% decide what is important, this is the only reality most of us see or hear. It provokes great heat and vehemence and decides what the people who matter – across the world and here – think and say about this country and it has no need to be rooted in logic to be heard.
But the size of the gap between logic and what the debate believes is so large that, amidst great pain, we again have cause to wonder how much of the country we discuss is really the one in which we live – and which we need to mend.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor, faculty of humanities, department of politics, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity