South Africa


North West uprising and restoring democratic values and practices

Photo: Raymond Suttner

The way the Ramaphosa-led government addresses the current uprising in North West goes to the core of restoring democracy, legality and regularisation of state actions, after the Zuma period. The violence in North West is a sign of the alienation of people from government. Unless state officials and the ANC listen claims of a “new dawn” will evoke cynicism.


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It is a common occurrence during protests to have foreign-owned businesses, that is businesses owned by refugees from Africa or Asia (not the wealthier ones from Europe or the US) destroyed and/or looted. This is so regular a feature that it tends to go almost unnoticed, as in the case of the North West protests against Premier Supra Mahumaphelo, where it has generally been mentioned as an aside.

As with most other cases, foreign business practices or any other conduct of the owners had nothing to do with the protests. These attacks signify more than the losses that refugees suffered, having worked very hard and under difficult conditions to make their businesses viable.

The attacks and destruction also constitute a repudiation of the notion that South Africa, in the words of the Freedom Charter, “belongs to all who live in it” and that and our understanding of rights and freedom is of qualities that are universal, belonging to all who inhabit this country.

Many have recorded that communities have sometimes come to the assistance of the foreign traders with whom they generally have a cordial relationship, because of the distinct way that they tend to run their businesses (open for lengthy working hours, with relatively low prices, extending credit and other practices appreciated by the communities where their businesses are located).

These protests also, fairly often feature destruction of institutions that are uncontroversial in themselves and benefit the communities. There has been burning of a cultural centre in North West and libraries, schools and other buildings directly benefiting the people, as has been the case in Vuwani in Limpopo and other places.

This is often described as “mindless violence”, when people destroy what is built for them and their children by government. Instead of such statements and the usual condemnations and defences we need to ask deeper questions: why do people resort to such actions and what can be done about this? When people, formerly and still oppressed in various ways believe their voices are unheard, they often become desperate. When they believe they have no way of remedying a problem they experience a combination of anguish over their powerlessness and anger. That anger is then often directed towards innocent targets. It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely but it is equally true that absolute powerlessness also has a tendency to corrupt and to erode moral values in people. We should not excuse what has been done but need to see these actions in the context of the unresponsiveness of the authorities, not over a short period, but decades.

The poor in South Africa may have come to believe that there is little good that their vote brings, little weight that it carries, insofar as the party for which most have voted has done little to remedy the load they continue to bear. It is 24 years into democracy and many still live in shacks or without any shelter. Many do not have access to clean water. Many do not have access to health care. Children risk or lose their lives using pit toilets or have no ablution facilities at all and they often attend schools that are inadequately equipped to perform educational tasks.

The denial of the basic needs of people, what is constitutionally required to lead a life with dignity, with access to basic nutrition and to be free from preventable illness or danger, is not a result of unavoidable forces of nature. Nor is it because of shortage of financial resources despite the dire straits of our economy. For a range of reasons people who suffer these adversities believe that the government they elected has failed them and continues to fail them. Corruption did not start with Jacob Zuma, but the ANC allowed him to magnify the problem and enhance its character into State Capture over almost ten years. The ANC and its allies consciously elected to lead the ANC and the country a person who already had a record of dishonesty and shady dealings of a variety of types and then served him with loyalty until very recently.

Some of those who were closely associated with Zuma and have carried out practices akin to that associated with Zuma’s corruption and State Capture continue to hold office or have even been elevated to higher offices in the ANC and state. Is it any wonder that people are driven to despair in the North West province in that attempts to achieve remedies through political action has proved fruitless, for a long time? Formal politics has failed them. It is in this context that we need to understand why people engage in apparently anti-social attacks on institutions and structures that could, in the normal course of events, benefit them.

The issues over which people protest in North West and in many other cases relate to the diversion of funds, towards which they have contributed as tax payers, from meeting their basic needs into the pockets of the powerful and their associates. More and more of these acts of corruption are being uncovered, notably in North West and Free State provinces, as in the alleged gift of R 1.5 million worth of cattle by Premier Supra Mahumaphelo to Jacob Zuma, resources meant for poor farmers in the province. Zuma has gone but the diversion of funds has continued and many, many of those who practise this continue to hold office at various levels.

The ANC leadership has just returned from visiting North West where an uprising against the provincial premiership of Mahumaphelo has been raging. President Ramaphosa may recognise that Mahumaphelo has to go. But one appreciates that there are processes that he needs to follow before setting in motion steps that implement this. The processes that are followed are necessitated by the power balance that Ramaphosa has to negotiate as a result of the way he was elected, with a very narrow majority. This has meant agreements with people who may not be as assiduous about a clean-up as some of Ramaphosa’s key appointments and decisions indicate that he is.

That his leadership works within constraints has to be recognised. But a point may be realised -sooner than Ramaphosa appreciates- where people become fed up with this notion that the needs of the ANC and safeguarding his hold on the presidency, against ANC opponents, are leading to appointments and retention of people in office that represent approaches that are contrary to the aspirations of the majority of the people and undermine an already damaged democratic and constitutional order. If speedy action is not taken over the fate of Mahumaphelo as Premier and ANC leader it may result in further outbreaks of public resistance, and broader discrediting of the ANC and government.

What does the Ramaphosa-led leadership and Ramaphosa himself do? He and his supporters want Ramaphosa to remain in office and those of us who appreciate the clean ups that he has initiated must also recognise that even if there are imperfections in what he has done, it is important that we try to strengthen his hand in the presidency in order to restore constitutionalism, legality and regularised state functioning.

The Zuma period has led to a devaluation of democratic practices in the public mind. The notion of debate and negotiation carries little weight insofar as attempts to enter dialogue with the authorities, in provinces like the North West have been spurned. The new leadership needs to demonstrate that it is willing to listen and be responsive. It needs to understand that solutions are more likely to work if they are a result of deliberations with those who are affected.

This is part of a broader basis that needs to be built to signal the level of commitment that the Ramaphosa-led ANC has to democratic values and practices. North West is a test case. Whatever the balance of forces in the ANC may be, there is ample evidence to justify removal of Mahumaphelo. That has nothing to do with ideology or factions. It relates to the need to cleanse government of those who rob the poor to enrich themselves and their allies. Unless the “new dawn” includes firm action in these cases, the anger that people have about not being heard in North West will spread more widely. The Ramaphosa presidency needs to take decisive action as part of a firm commitment to democracy that will be essential to remedying the continued looting that is closely connected to the scandalous conditions under which many continue to live.

It needs to look at multiple ways in which people are alienated from mainstream processes of politics and alienated from themselves. If Ramaphosa wants to lead a society towards healing and progress, it must ask what government has done for people, that leads them to resort to destruction of public property, that undermines their own interests. It must be bold and wise and ask why people destroy foreign owned businesses which help them.

It may be that such an exercise will help understand not just xenophobic tendencies but the ways in which people feel utterly unseen and unheard in their own country. If there is to be healing it must begin there, with this paradox that instead of the democratic project enlarging the scope and experience of freedom, very many people now feel a sense of hopelessness. Unless the Ramaphosa-led ANC and government listens to these voices there can be no genuine healing and reconstruction of democratic political life. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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