Over the past few years, we have witnessed a wave of popular protests, riots and even some regime changes in countries around the globe as people lost faith in their political and economic leaders, systems and institutions, and increasingly took to the streets in anger and desperation. They continue doing so unabatedly.
This phenomenon has manifested itself in places ranging from Hong Kong to Beirut, Afghanistan to Argentina, Brazil to Colombia, France to Ethiopia, Thailand to (unprecedented) Cuba, and in many more countries. Currently Sri Lanka is a hot spot. In fact, the Global Protest Tracker of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has listed more than 230 “significant anti-government protests” having taken place worldwide since 2017 in more than 110 countries, 78% of which were in what it calls authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries.
Of these protests, some 25 were directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic after 2020. In all of these protests, however, the underlying causes were one or a combination of 3 things: corruption, politics, and/or economic conditions. Now one can arguably add to the list of underlying causes the War in Ukraine and the resultant cost-of-living crisis (fuel and food prices/shortages mainly).
As much as the current era will be remembered in history as being that of the 4th industrial revolution characterised by new disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), it will quite possibly also be remembered as an era of unprecedented social instability and upheaval as people lose faith in the old and seek new solutions and responses… that in many cases are not forthcoming. In every revolution there is a social price to pay.
South Africa has been no exception, although some of our political leaders clearly won’t heed the danger signs and prefer living in well-paid oblivion with their heads deep down some hole. And while much of what is happening in South Africa should be viewed within this global context, the country is plagued by its own unique set of problems that have led to an ever-widening trust deficit.
In the 5 years since 2017 we here at the southern tip of Africa have witnessed angry protests against the corrupt rule of Jacob Zuma’s Gupta-centred state-capture administration; community service delivery protests (using monitoring group Municipal IQ’s narrow definition) which peaked at 237 protests in 2018 and since last year have been on the rise again (police numbers are far higher though); the massively angry and disruptive wave of violence, looting, destruction and dissatisfaction that swept across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July last year; and since then a variety of protests in different parts of the country, including over Eskom’s electricity failures and high and still rising food and fuel prices since Russia invaded Ukraine.
While South Africa does not count as one of the authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries, there has been some such manifestation in the governing party during the Covid-19 lockdown period. What comes to mind are the attempts by the government to secure greater centralised control, or some of the more draconian rights-restricting social policing measures forced upon citizens, or the actions of would-be tinpot dictators like police minister Bheki Cele or cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Nonetheless, what all of this tells one is that ordinary people everywhere have lost patience with and faith in their political and economic leaders, institutions and systems, and are increasingly voting with their feet and venting their anger on the streets. The importance of this is summed up in a report released in July last year by the United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs, titled “Trust in public institutions: Trends and implications for economic security”, in which it describes the importance of people’s trust in public institutions and leaders.
“The legitimacy of public institutions is crucial for building peaceful and inclusive societies. While levels of trust in institutions vary significantly across countries, opinion surveys suggest that there has been a decline in trust in public institutions in recent decades. Economic insecurity – which the COVID-19 crisis threatens to exacerbate – and perceptions of poor or corrupt government performance undermines the social contract and are closely linked to declines in institutional trust. Rebuilding public trust in the light of the current [Covid-19] crisis demands services that work for everyone and jobs that provide income security as well as more inclusive institutions.” (My italics for emphasis).
The report continues: “Trust is integral to the functioning of any society. Trust in each other, in our public institutions and in our leaders are all essential ingredients for social and economic progress, allowing people to cooperate with and express solidarity for one another. It allows public bodies to plan and execute policies and deliver services. Greater public trust has been found to improve compliance in regulations and tax collections, even respect for property rights. It also gives confidence to consumers and investors, crucial to creating jobs and the functioning of economies more broadly.”
Similar findings and warnings have been published in similar recent reports by among others the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the BTI Transformation Index for 2022, and the World Economic Forum (WEF). South Africa is frequently mentioned in this context.
While this should be of much concern everywhere, focusing on the South African context, we clearly seem to fall far short in respect of what the UN and other reports highlight. Our leaders should pay far more attention to the distress signals and warning signs emerging across this country. The last effective social contract in South Africa left the national stage with Nelson Mandela. It should be revived before it’s too late.
Judging by available research and surveys and by the prevailing sentiments across social media platforms, people are increasingly drawing direct correlations between, on the one hand, corrupt, inefficient and poor political leadership, and on the other hand, failures in electricity and water supply; the deaths of 21 young teenagers in an Eastern Cape tavern; the high crime rate topped by increasingly brazen rapes, robberies, and murders; high unemployment and poverty levels; the collapse of municipal services and governance in many areas; the service delivery failures of a corrupt and inefficient public service managed by cadre deployees; and the unaffordable high prices for fuel/public transport, food and services like electricity, among others.
In short, every problem, issue or catastrophe is blamed on a political system and leaders, and on institutions like the police, that are no longer trusted or considered to be capable of solving these. This is evident also in the trajectory of popular support ratings for or approval of the government, the governing party and the president as measured since Jacob Zuma became president. It was clear, for instance, that public faith in the government or president dropped in direct correlation to public perceptions that corruption, for instance, was worsening.
Writing in Afrobarometer Dispatch No 90 upon the release of the findings of a survey in 2021, Anyway Chingwete found that “the most recent Afrobarometer survey, carried out shortly before the July 2021 riots, shows that South Africans’ trust in a variety of institutions is at its lowest since first being measured by Afrobarometer in 2006”. Such observations should have had serious alarm bells ringing across the country. Chingwete also stated that “trust is a cornerstone of democratic legitimacy, triggering citizens’ willingness to contribute to a strong and robust democracy”.
Successive surveys by Afrobarometer and others showed that approval and trust ratings during the presidency of Jacob Zuma fell to unprecedented low levels as the South African public perceived that levels of corruption were on the rise. After a brief respite with improved approval and trust ratings in 2018, when people pinned their hopes on the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his promises of change and an end to corruption, the numbers started going down again. By July 2021 the societal and political divisions and the deep levels of distrust in the government were violently on display again.
Afrobarometer’s Carolyn Logan and Sibusiso Nkomo pointed out in an article published in The Washington Post at the time that “some indicators of popular support and government legitimacy have rebounded since Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018, others have not. On several measures South Africans rate their situation as even worse now than when Zuma left office”. They found that a new poll conducted in May and June last year among 1,600 South Africans suggested “that Zuma’s misrule may have damaged government legitimacy, perhaps even democracy itself, in ways that extend far beyond his own administration”.
Despite some more positive assessments in later surveys regarding performance and the rule of law, the weakening of other key indicators shows how fragile South Africans’ sense of state legitimacy and efficacy had become, asserted Logan and Nkomo. And corruption was the key factor informing perceptions of both the Zuma and Ramaphosa administrations – South Africans apparently don’t judge Ramaphosa’s government in much of a different light.
The loss of trust in and approval of the ANC government and its leaders was reflected most clearly in the loss of support the ANC experienced in two elections. In the 2019 general election (national and provinces) with Ramaphosa at the helm, ANC support fell from 62.15% in 2014 to 57.50%. The bigger shock for the ANC came in the municipal elections in 2021 when support fell from 55.65% in 2016 to 47.52%. Most analysts – including the ANC’s own – predict even further losses in the 2024 general election, some expecting the party to lose power. But there is little or no indication that the public has any more faith and trust in whatever unholy coalitions are cobbled together to replace the ANC. The problem is much wider than just the ANC.
Logan and Nkomo believe that South Africa’s very democracy is being threatened and that last year’s unrest was a symptom thereof. They believe that “public confidence [in July 2021] in the political system was at or near all-time lows”. A key finding of theirs was that “The failures of successive administrations to address the country’s profound inequalities and to check corruption are undermining the legitimacy of the government.”
I have previously argued that the Ramaphosa government is failing to address or even to acknowledge the key issues exposed by the July 2021 unrest, namely poverty, unemployment and inequality, as well as the incompetence of key elements of his government. Instead, the Ramaphosa government has been hiding behind a false narrative of a small and carefully planned and executed “plot to overthrow the government”.
While fallout from the factional divisions in the ANC may have ignited the unrest, its subsequent rapid and widespread popular escalation was a symptom of the very negative socio-economic conditions in South Africa. But that has been denied by Ramaphosa. Historically in Africa and elsewhere, the next step from such a situation has been violent revolution or coup d’états. It seldom has a nice ending.
It’s not that the Ramaphosa government is unaware of this; it simply does not have the political will to do much about it. Ramaphosa already in 2020 said South Africans are losing trust in politicians due to the abuse of positions and the quest for self-enrichment. More recently he acknowledged the loss of trust and mounting public frustration with South Africa’s leadership and institutions after miners booed and drove him from a May Day celebration rally.
Various proposals for remedying the situation in South Africa have been put forward by well-meaning non-governmental individuals and entities and are worthy of support. However, they will arguably not gain much popular foothold in an environment where factional divisions and power struggles in the governing party continue to dominate; where cadre deployment continues to undermine the prospect of a professional public service capable of efficient, corruption-free service delivery; and where an obsession with ideological constructs overrides utilising the powerful possibilities of a pragmatic and socially shared approach built around broad consensus.
Rebuilding public trust and confidence in our political institutions and leaders will not be easy. Where does one even start? By fixing Eskom or our wrecked municipalities? By jailing corrupt and criminal politicians? By ending cadre deployment and creating a professional, independent public service? By reforming labour legislation and the excessive power of unions? By reforming and retraining the police so they can do their job? The list carries on.
Yet something must be done, or the entire political system and its leaders, political and economic institutions, our very democracy and its constitution, could all fall victim to a very angry population.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.