South Africa

THE AFTERMATH: REFLECTION

Please don’t talk to me about Mandela right now

A man walks past a burnt car in the Pietermaritzburg CBD, 16 July 2021. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Some of us are struggling to get on board with the post-riot nation-building narrative.

I’m aware that it is Nelson Mandela’s birthday today (Sunday, 18 July). Depending on who you listen to, this year’s Mandela Day is either dripping with poignancy because of how far we’ve fallen from the prelapsarian Eden of the mid-90s, or beautifully fitting because we can all get out there and do what Madiba would have wanted: namely, sweep up all the broken shops.

I’m aware that it is Nelson Mandela’s birthday today, but the rhetoric around it is sort of just sticking in my craw a bit this year, on account of the more than 200 people killed in violent and terrifying ways in the days leading up to the anniversary, and a bunch of other stuff.

I don’t want to feel this way. I would really like to get on board with the post-riot nation-building narrative. And I’m deeply grateful to those citizens who have. I have watched my fair share of montage videos featuring multi-coloured South Africans cleaning and rebuilding, set to the music of Johnny Clegg, and I have choked back some tears.

But I have also choked back some rage. Because, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, we shouldn’t have to keep doing this. We shouldn’t have to keep coming together as a nation in the name of Mandela to rebuild. We shouldn’t have to keep digging deep, and keep rallying together, and keep mining that indomitable spirit of South Africanness we keep being told about, and keep making withdrawals from the rapidly depleting Ubuntu Bank.

My friend Sarah put it best, in a WhatsApp this week.

“I am so sick and tired of our national character having to be RESILIENT,” she wrote.

As South Africans, we don’t get to be playful, or grumpy, or stingy, or sexy, or any one of a hundred other options for national stereotypes. We get to be RESILIENT. A nation of resilient little battlers, constantly picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after national tragedy or government scandal.

Which brings me to another matter. The events of the past week have caused even the likes of me, who previously did not have a libertarian bone in her body, to ponder the question: What, actually, is the point of a government?

What is the point of a government, when we know that it was private security and ordinary civilians who held the line this past week? For all the praise that Cabinet ministers have retrospectively doled out to police and the army, we have all seen the footage of cops responding to the riots with approximately the same urgency as a hungover teenager doing the dishes under duress.

Which was a teeny bit weird, because we’ve all also seen the footage of cops blasting a water cannon on elderly and disabled social grant applicants in January this year after giving them one minute to disperse.

What is the point of a government, when we know that it is warm-hearted citizens and NGOs who will largely be responsible for feeding those who must now go hungry? When Gift of the Givers announced they were on their way to fix things, I can’t be the only one who wished for the hundredth time that we could just chuck the keys to the Union Buildings to Imtiaz Sooliman and be done with it.

And what is the point of a government, when we’ve seen all those heroic ordinary people cleaning up the chaotic aftermath of the riots?

President Cyril Ramaphosa praised these wonderful folk in his Friday night address, and then took things a step further — suggesting that it might be nice if we all came together as a nation to keep cleaning, every month or so, as is compulsory in many African and Asian countries.

When I heard that bit of his speech, it took all my self-control not to put a fist through my laptop screen. Because really: Pick your moment, Mr Prez. We’ve just been brutalised by a tsunami of violence playing out on live TV, a traumatising explosion reaping the whirlwind of inequality and poverty, and one of your proposed solutions is that maybe all the good South Africans, the non-looters, or even perhaps the repented looters, should get out there more often with a broom?

In the radio-edited words of Justin Bieber, Mr President: You should go and love yourself.  

This is not the mid-90s. This is not the Rugby World Cup, or the Fifa World Cup, or the Miss Universe pageant. This is not a moment to market internationally as evidence of our exceptionalism once more; or our gift for forgiving and forgetting — which would seem certifiable in a person by now.

This is a tinderbox of a state, teetering on the edge from years of corrupt misrule. This is things well and truly falling the fuck apart. This is a government that has failed its people again, and again, and again.

When you look at those hardy and magnificent citizens out there cleaning the streets, Mr President, you should not feel national pride. What you should feel is shame. Shame that for the millionth time in this country’s history, it will be ordinary people dragging this nation forward once more. DM

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All Comments 66

  • It is 00:38 on Monday morning and I am sitting on a lump of wood next to an access road to the CBD of our city.
    Rumours are rive about another session of destruction being planned somewhere. No-one knows what is true or false. No-one have seen a soldier anywhere this entire week. During daytime some police officer sometimes pays a visit to our CPF point but disappear without a word of encouragement, advice or assistance.
    The citizens of this country are truly on their own. There is no government left and no-one even says a word about the president’s speech, as if he does not exist.
    We are just here to keep our families safe. Nothing more. Nothing less. And everyone seems to be thinking: Quo vadis? But as there is no answer no-one says anything. We just sit here in the darkness and wait.

    • Great article. I’m still shattered by scenes of the riots on TV.

      One was of a 3km traffic jam of looters on their way to loot some warehouses up the road. Not a single cop in sight.

      Cut to 3 cops patrolling a totally looted shop with nothing left. And then standing outside to guard it…. From what!?

      We are totally on our own in this place

  • You speak for many, Rebecca. I didn’t know there was a label for someone like me (libertarian?), but I see a quiet grassroots movement happening to bring about an alternative to the government paradigm that is failing people all over the world, although SA as usual does it in spectacular fashion. People are starting to form self-sufficient communities WITHOUT selfish I-me-mine agendas. Small towns are beginning to do things for themselves. It seems like an impossibility and fraught with unknowns, but keeping going as we are is an impossibility and fraught with unknowns. The only thing that seems to hold a glimmer of hope at central government level is the President’s district-based model of governance; but how long has that been on the agenda already? Anything with good intentions remains dependent on implementation further down the chain, and that is non-existent. Bottom line – the top down approach isn’t working.

    • To quote Rebecca, nothing will “. . . well and truly fall[ing] the fuck apart . . ” than when and if the government ever manages to find it’s ducks and line them up behind [or in front of] Nkosana Dlamini Zuma – SA’s very own architect of Disaster [mis]Management at COGTA – and allows NDZ to begin to implement the DDM that you say “. . . seems to hold a glimmer of hope at central government level . . .”!

      If you – or anyone for that matter – thinks that by collapsing however many already collapsed local municipalities into a fewer number of also collapsed district municipalities to create a “district-based model of governance” is the way to go, you are all delusional; and the Country will be further “plundered” into a cluster-phuck of monumental proportions!

      Her poignant and almost rhetorical question “What, actually, is the point of a government?” in the context of what has just happened to SA and her citizens is what each and every voter needs to remember in future elections and to make sure that we never again have to repeat this question.

      Thank you Rebecca and DM for another thought provoking article.

  • Dear Rebecca
    I hear your anguish, and share it.
    I find myself looking at the rows of people now waiting for food parcels and wonder how many of them looted televisions rather than food. I know it is unfair. I am just so tired of believing that things will improve. I sometimes wonder what it is like living somewhere where I can be angry when things go wrong without having to consider how my privilege is also to blame.

    • Exactly – one almost feels guilty for being hardworking and honest with integrity, because barbarians went on a thieving rampage?!? Not fair!

    • Indeed Anneli. I never comment because I always ask myself whether what I say will be read, instead of those reading it jumping to the predictable perception of where the comment comes from. Cyril has my support. I believe in his integrity. I believe he loves SA as much as I do. However, good leadership is only good when the leader surround himself/herself with leaders sharing the same values and with a desire to take action and make matters work.

  • Wow, it’s taken this much for Rebecca Davis to finally understand a little of the value of libertarianism? This is the first piece in a decade that didn’t make me bilious.

  • I’m with you all the way on this “resilience” narrative. Government screws up royally and spectacularly in multiple ways and WE, the voters, tax-payers, citizens, unemployed people and children whose futures are bleak, are told and then praised for being RESILIENT? Mr Ramaphosa needs to find a spine and be RESILIENT in standing up to those in government who force us to be resilient. When you think about it, what the hell else are we supposed to be in the face of (Eskom, for example) being cheated and robbed of daily necessities along with the national purse? Lie down and die? It is just not good enough.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this. It’s ok for us to feel sad and angry and despondent….because come on, this has just been going on for too long. One thing after the other, it just doesn’t stop. It really is time for things to change and unfortunately I think the only way is with the falling apart of the ANC. As long as the ANC takes precedence over everything else in this country the status quo will remain.

  • There is nothing so bad no good can come of it, if the point of the riots was to get more people to ask ‘what is the point of government’ then that’s the good.

    I’m shocked that we are shocked to be here, considering the beginnings of the rainbow nation project in 1994. Of all our options for a leader, our best bet was Mandela. Whether it is despite or because of, the fact that our best bet for salvation at that moment was someone who had been in prison that long gives a clue on how we ended up here.

    In a 2022 I’ll be 40, started my career at 20 and been active since albeit with progress. If I had to do something I excelled at in the begging of my career now it would take some refreshers, even though I’ve been active in the field. I cannot fathom how someone who was isolated as long as Mandela, with active means to break his spirits could have been the best choice at that moment, I’m trying to and have been since I grew up!

    From a staunch libertarian.

  • At last, an article that is expressing my feelings today. .. I’m tired of being “resilient”, tired of having to accept the lack of services rendered by un-civil servants, I’m tired of feeling sad about the continuous state of mayhem sprouting somewhere in our country, I’m angry about the looting and corruption laid bare at the Zondo commission which seems to continue unpunished (remember PPE tenders?) … I myself sat ruminating last night on whether we shouldn’t rather give 50% of our taxes to gift of the givers and to hell with local government… but it’s Monday and the week ahead awaits, heaven help us!

  • Shame on you, CR. You strut about but, like an ostrich with a helicopter, but as soon as you land you stick your head back in the sand. We need leadership and are getting none from you, our government nor the ANC.

  • Well said, Rebecca. However, next election will see the same people that are rioting and queuing for food, back at the polling stations voting for the ANC, and so the cycle will begin again. The majority of South Africans are both blind and deaf to the theft and corruption that are the ANC.

  • Perfect now I wonder if Frog Boiler gets to read this stuff or just Independent Newspapers drivel. Which I must mention had a rubbish piece about Rupert telling “Ramaphosa to get rid of ACE” I have never read a more race baiting bunch of lies in my life. Definitely a Zuma newspaper group.

  • Beautifully put. Indeed, what use is this government, other than for providing jobs for cadres who don’t have the skill or civic consciousness to do their jobs. Away with them all. Disgraceful!

  • Two comments …..

    (i) “…it will be ordinary people dragging this nation forward once more…” ?

    No. It will be ordinary people first dragging this nation once more out of the ANC created gutter it perpetually finds itself in. Going forward is only going to happen when that is done.

    (ii) President? Schmesident ! More like a not-very-embarrassed and defensive spokesman for the collective.

  • This piece articulated my feelings so well. I never understood libertarianism until now, I have never thought maybe I should get a gun to protect my family until now. This past week has shaken up all my values and beliefs. I too am sick of resilience, family and friends overseas keep telling me ”you South Africans always pick yourself up and carry-on”. I dont want to. I dont want to hear another politician speak and tell me what to do or how to run my life ever again. The gaslighting, fear mongering, race baiting, corrupt political elites need to STFU. I am only interested in my fellow South African who wants to build a future for themselves and their families.

  • I, like many South Africans, am so, so, tired. I don’t live in KZN any more and have had to find solace in the fact that community militia and taxi gangs are protecting my family back home. Not the police. Not the army. Regular armed citizens, and likely some low level criminals. How did we even get here?

    As Salatiso Mdeni pointed out, I hope this finally makes people question where they put their cross coming local elections – the ANC cannot be allowed to hold us back any more. The time people voted for a better alternative came about in 2009, but maybe this will finally be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    • Sadly they will all now rush to vote EFF with more promises of free stuff. The only real pandemic we face is stupidity and there is no vaccine for stupidity.

  • All this crap could have been stopped by saint Mandela. If he had actually done something when the corrupt Zarafina happened and when the first signs of stae capture occurred when the arms deal was signed, SA would have been a much better and equal place to live in for all of us. Bu8t no – it has always been the anc above all. ‘We need to stay in control, so that we can rule and loot. We are not in government to stay poor.’

  • Hear hear Rebecca! Somewhere in your excellent article you mention the word “shame”- that is a feeling which no ANC government member has experienced- how else can anything be explained?

  • Thank you Rebecca for putting the feelings of many South Africans into such eloquent words. Thank you too for expressing my feelings exactly about national pride and shame. The ANC cannot look back with pride, only shame!!!
    I feel totally cheated – 1994 I was filled with optimism and vigour, now?????

  • Yes, what exactly is the point? What bang are we getting for our tax buck? Health services? Education? Safety and security? Who amongst you are paying for private services in these areas? And when you look at what your tax deduction is, do you not, like me, get an angina attack? Now we must pick up our brooms and sweep the streets as well!!! Seriously Mr Prez, what are we paying taxes for? Oh, wait, yes…..

  • Good article!
    It’s very nice to see some good ‘ol unbiased journalism for a change. Most mainstream news outlets are controlled or influenced by the same criminals that run the country.
    The ANC, along with RhamaPOESa, are an absolute cANCer to the country and our land will continue to dissolve as long as they are in charge.

  • Thank you and well-said Rebecca. Linked to your (and my, and many) sentiments of “enough” is surely the reality of the bloated and overpaid public service? It is enormous and inefficient by any global standards. Especially since Covid because no official of the civil service ever appears to be at work! I know I am not alone in wondering why we, the people, keep having to do the jobs that a government is meant to do. Teachers aren’t teaching, policemen aren’t policing, municipalities aren’t functioning, departments of home affairs/housing/planning/you name it, never operate at full capacity, our army doesn’t appear to exist, our hospitals are collapsing … the list is endless. When is someone going to write an article that analyses our government and public wage bill compared to those bills of the African countries where civilians help. The results are sure to steer civilians towards go-slows.

  • Thinking of our many friends in RSA. Govt must, first, find and prosecute the ringleaders. And, second, make the broad economic reforms so that RSA is a more just and equitable nation. Easy to say from USA, but still accurate.

  • A good dose of reality. Personally I think a fine tightrope between healthy ANGER and hanging onto the reality that its down to us so we may as well be happy that we still have it in us, that will get us through

  • Disappointed with the response to this article. As readers of Maverick, I would guess we are amongst the well educated “leadership” class in South Africa. In that context, distraught as we may be at what the ANC has brought our country to, if we cannot lead with anything other than angry outbursts and vitriol, then I really despair. In some sense we are doing what the looters did – they ransacked and destroyed malls and roads and warehouses, we are ransacking and destroying ideas and enthusiasm. The deep western democracies took centuries to get where they are today, through civil wars, through revolutions, through struggles. We are historically blind, cloud nine dwellers if we expect our young democracy to develop that far in a mere 30 years. Growth is not always gentle and comfortable and achieved without any change. So lets be resilient, lets use our collective education, and lets contribute where we can, rather than joining the looters in destroying our country.
    I will no doubt get myself tackled and thumped to the bottom of a rugby scrum for saying this, but I think it needs to be said.

    • Geoff Krige, you’ve said it for me. The language, the vitriol on social media is so unbearable and paralysing. Sadly it doesn’t help anyone.

  • OK I agree that the government is not governing (loved your description of the police’s response!) but nevertheless I am focussing on the South African citizens’ response, because I don’t want to sink into despair. I think you are despairing, with good reason, but I am not. The human race is heading for extinction. It’s a pity, but I can’t stop it, and I intend to enjoy being alive while I can and do my little bit. Jonathan Jansen once wrote that SA is frequently on the brink but survives because we have the capacity for self correction and for forgiveness, and we can laugh at ourselves; because of our openness to ground-moving political and social gestures; we avert disaster by our tenacity as a people, our determination to take on the long odds, and a powerful moral “underground” – tens of thousands of people who work as volunteers, behind the scenes, to make South Africa work. So if it’s up to us, the “ordinary” people of SA to make things work we will. Government must get out of the way, and let us do so.

  • Who or what is “the ANC”? or, for that matter something like “the NG Kerk?” , etc., etc? I somehow argue that as long as we wait for “the ANC”, we are boxing outside the ring.

  • Well said Rebecca. The crime that this anc government have committed against the South African public should be treated as human-rights’ abuses. They have literally stolen the future of millions of people, their children included. There is NOTHING that they deliver to the public. No safety (their number 1 and most basic OBLIGATION!); terrible health; terrible eduction; ESKOM and all of it’s rubbish, including crippling debt for generations to come; crumbling municipal infrastructure, with mayors driving top-end motor vehicles, while raw sewage flows down the streets; the list goes on and on. Please somebody tell me what they have done right. Our politicians have zero focus on their jobs, as they jockey for position at the corruption table. It’s an absolute travesty, and there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel. Not with this bunch of thieves in charge.

  • Quite right, we are all tired of being resilient and picking ourselves up while this government has failed us time and time again. Let’s hope that Cyril moves quickly now as he has the perfect opportunity to shine as a leader and clean up his act.

  • Rebecca, I agree with you 100%, there was an unknown quote the end of the past week.. “thank you to the law abiding citizens of this country for protecting the police and the defense force”. Thank you Gerhard. How shameful that it has come to this!! The training of our forces falls far short of what is required to keep the peace, appoint qualified & experienced people in leadership positions to try & rectify this nightmare. Cele hiding his unhappy face under his ridiculous hat whilst informing the public of the pending arrest of Zuma? Such a farce!

  • Amazing post, which does extremely well to articulate what I think many South Africans are thinking. It certainly resonated with me. Glad to see it being distributed via WhatsApp as well.

    Thank you for your honesty. This post, together with the other recent excellent posts this week, has prompted me to donate monthly to Daily Maverick. Keep up the good work!

    • Great to read that other people feel a rise up of nausea in ones throat when we listen to our sanctimonious president tells us to clean up the streets while the country burns and goes bust
      Brilliant writing as always