If there is one thing the recent riots in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng achieved among South Africans, it was to generate deep introspection and fiery debate on everything from our national identity to the causal elements, responses, failures, potential contingencies, and remedial or preventative challenges and requirements, among others.
South Africa has endured a number of key events or major disruptions, even tipping points, since the advent of democracy in 1994, among them AIDS denialism and its deadly consequences, the Marikana massacre, xenophobia on a deadly scale, state capture and corruption, and the coronavirus pandemic and its destructive consequences. All big and disturbing events, yet none seem to have measured quite the same magnitude of national shock as the most recent mayhem did. It certainly was a seismic event.
It may be because these recent events laid bare a part of our national psyche that we didn’t know we possessed. Or if we did know or had suspected it, we chose previously to suppress it, to pretend it didn’t exist. At our own peril, as we found out.
Nonetheless, it did happen, and it elicited a fiery national debate that exposed high levels of national confusion and soul-searching, a reassessment of who and what we are. Over and over, we have analysed and stripped to the bone the possible reasons for the mayhem, the fate of the erstwhile ‘rainbow’ promise, or the more recent promise of a new dawn, to the explanatory narratives that arose, the apportioning of blame, assumed failures or successes, the state and government’s responses or lack thereof, the flashpoints past, present and future, and where we stand on race and ethnicity. Yes, even this latter uncomfortable element again reared its ugly head.
Broadening the debate
Every commentator or analyst has a different view; has offered his or her own “truth” behind it all. And that’s a good thing. It broadens the introspection and the debate, making sure we miss nothing. It has so far also revealed or raised some uncomfortable issues.
The broader and more diverse the range of opinions, the better. It helps us arrive at the truth. As Noam Chomsky once warned, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”.
South Africans have shown over and over again that they don’t accept a narrow spectrum, and they don’t want to be passive and obedient, but rather intellectually probing and actively challenging across the entire possible spectrum in order to determine their own collective destiny.
Now we need to do so once again; we also need to cut through all the noise to make sense of the recent events, and to conclude with the real truth of our reality, in order that we may proceed to a better future space. And once we establish our truth, we need to speak such truth to power, to make sure it is acted upon. With this as a contextual starting point, let’s examine just a few key aspects or challenges that have arisen, although there are many more.
The recent mayhem had three major components: (1) the initial political protest (free Zuma, the ANC factional divide); (2) this provided an opportunity for escalation, a trigger for a larger response that quickly gained momentum and crossed from the political into the socio-economic realm (mass poverty, unemployment, inequality, lockdown hardships); and (3) the criminal component presented itself on various levels (initial law-defying political instigation, spontaneous mass looting and destruction, encouragement of rioting, vigilantism, ongoing instigation to commit crimes).
Components 2 and 3 would not have come into play without the first trigger component, and political protest and instigation would not have succeeded if the underlying socio-economic conditions (number 2) did not exist. Instigation started off as a trigger or initial driver, but then became parasitic and incidental as the mayhem expanded.
This confirms the integrated interrelationships of social, political and economic stress dynamics that can quickly escalate or be abused for escalation to high levels of mass protest, riots and/or criminal conduct. To address the recent disruption and prevent similar ones in future, we need a holistic approach with an integrated remedial solution. The bottom line is, no single component can be seen in isolation as the cause or driver of the unrest; they are all linked as a confluence of factors and need to be addressed individually and in conjunction with each other.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s political and constitutional settlement of 1994 is not secure or free of serious stress and potential major disruption. But worse still, socio-economic stress and pressures have been inadequately, even negligibly addressed since 1994, with more recent escalations of pressures in this sphere due to the pandemic. Scant attention has been given to maintaining the socio-political equilibrium – reviewing and adjusting it where necessary. The 1994 ‘miracle’ has been accepted as a given, a constant that is unassailable. An obvious mistake.
The quick-fix economic solution to the structural stress that threatened to collapse the socio-political substructure, has been to try and impose different interpretations of “radical economic transformation” (RET) on the country. It is little more than an ideological construct and part of a revived element of governing strategy to hastily try and complete what is presented as a revolution. In reality, its imposition has caused new tensions and polarisation, without thus far even beginning to solve the pressing national questions of a stalled economy, poverty, unemployment and inequality. Add this to the chain of factors and events that started with a political protest at Nkandla.
Ethnicity and race
It’s important to address these two issues when looking at the recent events, for if disregarded political and socio-economic factors proved to be a tinderbox, race and ethnicity could easily be another. Much has been said about the “ethnic factor” in the recent riots and elicits the question whether there indeed was an ethnic aspect involved?
Let me be clear at the outset before anyone misunderstands; to characterise the riots in an ethnic context is totally wrong. This was no ‘Zulu uprising’ or anything of the sort. People of other races were also seen looting while people across racial and ethnic lines engaged directly or via social media. President Ramaphosa’s reference to ethnic mobilisation was an unfortunate choice of words – but arguably premised on a real concern he may have had – to the point where he felt obliged to retract and apologise and thus it is no longer being addressed.
This is of course sensitive terrain that makes many people uncomfortable or super alert to anyone crossing “the line”, and it easily elicits emotional responses. The easy option would be to simply reject any notion of this kind out of hand. Yet there were a number of dots that appeared during the course of the recent protests and the subsequent riots. These do require further examination to see if they indeed connect or if they encouraged the riots in any way, and if they do, we need to address them with a view to the future.
They should be viewed against the historical political context of the affected regions as much as the current state of political play in South Africa. The fact that a number of these dots appeared at Nkandla, in some statements made by eminent persons, across social media, and in how the riots eventually unfolded, all give context to a legitimate concern.
It is therefore not unreasonable to rationally assume that some obscure instigators may have been pushing some ethnonationalist buttons to generate the initial angry support for Zuma that could unleash mayhem on a larger scale.
The point is, one cannot simply walk away from this just because it is socio-politically uncomfortable or sensitive. It needs to be interrogated and if necessary, addressed as part of the bigger picture in which all the contributory elements are examined and fixed.
Meanwhile, as if we don’t have enough underlying tensions and other potential triggers of social blowouts in South Africa, the issue of race was once again dragged squarely into these events. This was evident in how some political leaders – the usual culprits – tried to fan racial tensions between different racial communities into the unfolding drama.
White monopoly capital (WMC) was also pulled into the fray while official responses may have created an impression that only the fate of black businesses and township economies were of any real concern. But this may have been merely coincidental in another example where unfortunate word choices may have unintended interpretations and consequences. However, in a race-sensitive society where serious tensions could easily arise, one should always be cautiously aware of this.
Finally, when security forces failed the citizenry and citizens or vigilantes took matters into their own hands to protect their communities and their assets, examples of naked racism emerged, despite the many denials. One could argue that this is partially the result of years of careless, unchecked political incitement and polarisation. Nonetheless, while social media as usual generated much that is fake, there do seem to be ample examples – in both social and mainstream media – of vigilantes employing racial profiling and abuse, and of cross-racial violence.
These are all issues over which we cannot bury our heads in the sand but need to address head on lest they should become our next major flashpoint.
Failures of concern
In the aftermath it’s easy to blame the government for all that went wrong. And while it does undeniably bear much responsibility, all parties and South Africa’s people as a whole have through our negligence or failure to respond early and appropriately to our many problems and pressures, been complicit to a point. Civil society as much as the organs of state and the government had failed us on this one.
But the biggest or most immediate failure that requires urgent attention, concerns our security establishment – intelligence, police and the army. Caught up in political and factional power games, our intelligence services once again failed to give early warning, just as had happened in the cases of Marikana and xenophobic violence.
And the police services proved their inadequacy just as they did in respect of Marikana, xenophobic violence and more recently in enforcing lockdown regulations that could have prevented much of the spread of Covid-19. And army deployment, when it finally came, was late, slow and disorganised.
These institutions – but especially intelligence and the police – have been hollowed out and are paying the price for cadre deployment, political factional battles that adversely affected organisation and morale, leadership vacuums that arose as a result, poor political leadership, and years of budgetary constraints in favour of social priorities over others. Serious attention, reorganisation, refinancing, focused retraining and new leadership are urgently required.
The blame narrative
In the aftermath of the riots President Ramaphosa and members of his government have cautiously and only partially accepted blame for all that went wrong – saying only “we could have done better”, is little more than a public relations exercise designed to make the government look less bad. Remember, there are elections coming.
Instead of fully accepting liability, a carefully constructed narrative of a planned and well executed insurrection by a nameless, faceless few, has been implanted in the public consciousness. So far, apart from exposing a few individuals who seem to have propagated their personal irresponsible views or preferences on social media, trying to encourage more mayhem, the official narrative at this point still seems to be little more than a fiction. There may yet be some truth to it, but there are also many other truths emanating from the mayhem that require urgent attention.
It is dangerous, instead of accepting responsibility and confronting and solving our very real problems, to play this game and constantly shift the blame elsewhere – the legacy of apartheid, the 2008 global financial crisis, weak commodity markets, state capture, the coronavirus pandemic, and now the “organised insurrection” by sinister counter-revolutionary forces. We know quite well the impacts of all of these but hiding behind such excuses will never lift South Africa out of the morass.
So, what now?
The level and diversity of debate that arose in the aftermath, reveals distinct opportunity. We missed the boat before by trying to impose one-sided economic solutions without any proper prior broad-based social consultation. Instead, for example, we treated ourselves to a carefully choregraphed but inadequate public consultation process around an emotional quick fix centred on expropriation of property without compensation (EWC).
Had we conducted a thorough national economic debate some years ago like we did in the run-up to 1994, and had we implemented appropriate plans (like the dust-gathering National Development Plan), we might have averted much of the recent anger and destruction.
But the seriousness of recent events and the debate it has ignited, presents us with a second chance. Assessing the causes and the damage done, fixing it and installing preventative measures to prevent a future recurrence, is a task too big for one party, leader or segment of the population. It requires a broad-based, widely representative national convention with the broadest possible buy-in and consensus to arrive at a new social compact with a dynamic, growth-focused economic foundation. Otherwise, we will have more such dangerous eruptions and who knows how it will end.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.