South Africa


What happens to a Dream Deferred?

A man raises his hands moments before his arrest in Hillbrow, Johannesburg on 11 July 2021 after looting and unrest. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Last week, suddenly, the poor were before our eyes. They will remain so, for a while, as the crisis deepens in their communities, given food scarcity, lack of transport, job and livelihood losses and — looting is a superspreader event — a rampaging pandemic. Will we unsee this, once this particular insurrection and its aftermath are over? The damage that has been done will need more than strong words to repair. Into such vacuums step fascist strongmen — even if not, immediately, through a coup, then through the ballot box.

  1.         E’s Story

At around 4pm last Monday afternoon, my friend E got a frantic call from his home while he was on patrol at a roadblock. E is a middle-aged scientist with a bad back, but he had answered the call to protect his suburb. He is an Indian man, who lives in a multi-ethnic and mixed-class community in Durban, fringed by informal settlements and businesses that were being looted and burned. “It has been easier for the men out on patrol than for the ladies back at home with the children, who felt that their only way to survive was to let their husbands go out, not knowing if they would come back,” he said to me when we spoke later in the week, “and then panicking as they followed social media, so much of it fake and fear-mongering.”

E’s home is on a thoroughfare, and there was a serious commotion — gunfire and shouting — nearby. He rushed back from the roadblock to see a bakkie filled with looted goods surrounded by enraged people, its driver, bloodied, sitting on the curb. It appeared the driver had been stopped, hauled out of his vehicle with some of his booty, and beaten up.

It was very confusing watching the mixed reactions of the crowd that had gathered, E told me. He heard sympathy expressed for the bloody driver, and he felt it swell up inside himself. This was something he would feel repeatedly over the following days as he watched looters haul their stash past him, or turned them back from the roadblock: he could see that most were desperately poor.

After the incident with the bakkie, which had escalated to such a point that white men with serious guns had arrived from a suburb nearby, E and his neighbours decided that they would not attempt to stop or arrest looters: “We saw our job as protecting our homes and our families, and the looters were peaceful, even friendly, a little apologetic sometimes.” As the week progressed, it was clear that the looters were not from the settlements in their immediate environs, but had come from further afield to pillage the businesses nearby. E wondered whether they had been sent, or brought to his area.

Some seemed lost and disoriented, or stuck, because of the curfew. The patrollers used the latter as a reason to control access to the suburb: “If you enter, you won’t be allowed out until daytime.” Meanwhile, residents were panicking, as they could not get basic supplies: the local supermarkets had been burned, looted or shut down, and the shopping hub in the nearest white suburb was closed off too, by that area’s patrollers, because they could not prove they lived there. Inevitably “an open-air supermarket”, as E calls it, sprung up: looters stuck because of no transport or the curfew selling their excess booty.

For four terrifying nights, E and his family slept in the study adjoining their carport, bags packed, car facing the street. The white suburb nearby was “armed and ready for war”, he messaged me on Wednesday night. But his community was closer to the fire: “We are making social contact with the looters and the local informal settlement, releasing tension where we can. As usual we are in the middle.”

On Friday, the family moved back into the bedrooms, and E was able to get to the white shopping hub and fill his car with petrol. It was only a few kilometres away, but he felt he had crossed a line into another country: “The sense I got was that this was just an inconvenience for them, whereas for us it’s been a matter of life and death. There was a teenage girl walking home with her cup of coffee just bought from one of those fancy coffee shops, and I had to stop my car, I was so stunned — by a girl drinking a cappuccino! Did she know about the suffering just down the road?”

The riots and the looting and its consequences had caused E to see what we all know is there but that he, too, usually turned his head away from: the injustice and inequality of this society. All week, the French Revolution ran through his head: “The scale of the poverty, combined with the arrogance of those not experiencing poverty. That’s what causes a society to crumble.”

Set against this, E has taken heart in the solidarity he feels is being forged in his suburb, with neighbours getting to know each other as they patrolled together. He has been spending his nights at the roadblock, with people ranging from a 70-year-old Indian patriarch to black African and “coloured” homeowners he had never previously met, and even a few shack dwellers from the settlement.

E heard reports that the army was all over wealthier neighbourhoods and remains deeply distressed by the total lack of law enforcement in his suburb. There was, however, a metro police officer at the scene near his home, with the bloody bakkie driver. “This cop was all alone, he had clearly been driving around for hours, he hadn’t eaten or slept.” Some angry community members demanded the officer arrest the looter, but he declined: “If I take him to the station and book him, it’s going to take me off the street for hours. You can’t afford that.”

The wounded driver stumbled into his vehicle and left. As the officer drove off too these were his parting words: “You’re on your own. You need to protect yourselves.”


  1.       The Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode? 

From Langston Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred

A whole generation ago, in 1998, Thabo Mbeki — then deputy president — used this segment from Langston Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred to open a parliamentary debate on reconciliation and nation-building. Hughes’ concern in the 1920s “was the plight of fellow black Americans whose dreams of emancipation had sagged, rotted and festered into inner-city ghettos like Harlem”, I wrote in Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred. Mbeki’s concern in 1998 “was the crisis of expectation of black South Africans awaiting liberation and who now found themselves on the brink of explosion”.

In his speech, Mbeki repeated his famous and controversial statement that South Africa was “two nations”, one white and wealthy and the other “black and poor”. His warning was that if these two nations were not reconciled, economically as well as politically, the dream of equality and liberation promised by our constitution would explode. And so it seemed to do, in the past week. Even if the first nation is no longer only white, the second one remains overwhelmingly black and poor.

The sugary crust is the flash of wealth that must be attained, by any means, from renting out your government, to stuffing a looted 30-inch television set into the boot of your car; the brazen impunity of both, and the way the one encourages the other. It is the bling of blue lights on shiny German cars carrying men and women with little ability actually to govern. It is Duduzile Zuma’s wedding gown, encrusted with Swarovski crystals, as she shoots bullets into the president’s image and rouses the masses to insurrection. It is her twin brother’s model-C voice on social media, saying that last week’s riots were the result of hunger and poverty when his own involvement in State Capture has had a direct hand in this impoverishment.

The stench of rotten meat is, of course, the evidence before the State Capture commission. Can there be any clearer statement of the moral bankruptcy that has landed his father in jail than Duduzane Zuma’s Instagram call to “people who are protesting and looting” to “please do so carefully and responsibly”?

“The attempted insurrection has failed to gain popular support,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a strong, purposeful Friday night address to the nation. This seems to be true: people took to the streets because they were hungry, or greedy, and Jacob Zuma had little to do with it. Still, the anarchy did its job: if one of the intentions of the populist kleptocrats allegedly behind last week’s insurrection was to reveal the South African government as weak, it succeeded. Ramaphosa’s job has only become harder: not just within the ANC leadership, but among the people too. He might claim that the insurrection failed due to “the efforts of our security forces” as well as ordinary South Africans who came out to defend their democracy, but few believe it. The damage done will need more than strong words to repair. Into such vacuums step fascist strongmen — even if not, immediately, through a coup, then through the ballot box.

Much has been written, already, about the roots of our security forces’ weakness: budget cuts; shocking political and administrative management; their capture during the Zuma era. Increasingly, the primary problem seems to be the intelligence sector, its competency most corrupted by ANC factionalism. But there is another dimension to this, noted by Jonny Steinberg in his book Thin Blue: The Unwritten Rules of South African Policing, published in 2008: “The most important precondition for policing in a democratic society is the consent of the general population to be policed.” In post-apartheid South Africa, the police have failed to gain this consent, Steinberg argues, having been thrown out of the townships in the mid-1980s.

Those of us who live in suburbs might feel we have privatised our security by subscribing to services like ADT and Chubb, in the absence of adequate policing. In townships, security was privatised, too, in the vacuum left by the police’s departure. “It was to this terrain” that the police returned in the 1990s, writes Steinberg, and “they never found sufficient moral authority to rise above [its] logic.” With vivid examples from Alexandra and elsewhere, Steinberg demonstrates what happens to policing “when it is no longer performed with the consent of those who are policed”: “the police retreat”.

Or, he might have added, in a 2012 postscript: they overreact. As I watched footage of police officers at the sites of looting, when they were there, it seemed to me that most were just trying to do their dangerous jobs, filled with Marikana-anxiety and conflicted feelings about the people they were meant to be dispersing and arresting. One looter reported to a journalist that the policeman standing by said “take it and go, just don’t throw a stone at me” — presumably, because then he would have to respond with a rubber bullet.

How much of this is because of fear or lack of motivation (or lack of support), and how much is because of an empathy with the looters, I cannot say. If you live in a township, or patrol one, you know there are hungry people. They are your people. Maybe you think of yourself as one too, even if you have a job, because of the people you have to feed who cannot find work, and the rising cost of living. In his recent book Nation on a Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind, the psychologist Wahbie Long diagnoses the “shame” of deep poverty, and how this has led to the violence in our society, but also the “envy” of an aspiring middle class. He paraphrases Karl Marx: “The injustice of inequality is not that one lives in a shack, but that the shack sits in the shadow of a palace.”

  1.       The Promise

In Damon Galgut’s brilliant new novel, The Promise, a white family living on a farm outside Pretoria implodes during the course of the thirty years of South Africa’s transition to democracy. “The promise” might be that of a democratic South Africa, but it is also the commitment the family’s matriarch allegedly made, before her death, that she would give her domestic worker the deeds to the derelict house in which she lived, in the shadow of the family’s grandiose mansion. Her widower, and then her son, refuse to honour this commitment, and when her daughter finally does, it might be too late. The domestic worker’s son has hardened into a bitter anger that might veer into criminality — and anyway, there is a land claim on the property.

“Why would you not give up this shitty little house and the crap piece of land it stands on?” Galgut said to me, in an online discussion about his book, published in the Johannesburg Review of Books. He answered his own question: “Because you own it. You already own it, why give it up? That seems to me to be very much part of how white South Africa operates. I’ve often wondered how much different this country would be if — let’s leave colour out of it — if people who are privileged enough to own a little land would just give up part of it to people who have nothing. Maybe our general situation would be very different and maybe a little bit better.” That, he said, was “the unspoken question” behind his book.

In Thabo Mbeki’s parliamentary “Dream Deferred” address in 1998, he reflected on Germany’s experience, where citizens had to pay an additional 7.5% in tax for five years to help pay the massive costs of reunification. He noted that there was “much grumbling” after the imposition of just one year’s solidarity tax in South Africa, and that 30% of South African corporations were not registered to pay tax at all. Set against this, he spoke of “a mounting rage to which we must respond seriously”.

“Rage” does not seem to capture the dominant motivating emotion of last week’s rioters. There certainly was sabotage by shadowy insurrectionists — the torching of trucks on the N3, and of buildings — but, for the masses of looters seen on the nation’s TV screens, the trashing of shopping malls and warehouses seemed more about getting to the commodities inside them than some kind of destructive fury. Confounding, to many observers, was that looters would trash the precious infrastructure of townships — so long in coming — and their own ongoing food security.

To this, the shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo issued the following riposte: “If you ask people what they will eat after the riots are finished they say that they are hungry now. They will say that hunger is more deadly than Covid. If you ask them about the people who will lose their jobs they say what about our children who graduated but have no jobs? People are only looking at the present, and not the future. This is because they do not feel that they have a future.”

For the activist-scholar Trevor Ngwane, author of the just-published Amakomiti: Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements, last week’s rioters represent the “millions of working-class people” who have been “denied hope”: “They do not believe that there can be any solutions. They do not believe that they can be the solution.” None of this, he wrote last week, “just happened”: “Violence and stealing did not come suddenly when a few thousand people looted shops and arcades. It is as if the violence used by thousands is a sudden crime but the violence used against millions is not.”

When he was president, Thabo Mbeki liked to speak of the need for economic transformation to follow the political one. In the waning years of his presidency, Jacob Zuma and his supporters picked this up with their populist “radical economic transformation” challenge to the alleged “white monopoly capitalism” of Ramaphosa and his cronies. But in both the Mbeki and the Zuma governments, this did not mean more than the rapid expansion — essential — of a black middle class, and deepening inequality, although there were signs at the prosperous end of the Mbeki era that more people were getting jobs. A by-product of “Black Economic Empowerment” has been the creation of a new class of oligarchs leveraging their political influence in pacts with the establishment. Some of these have abused their positions, like Ramaphosa himself at Marikana; others are downright corrupt, as has been manifest at the State Capture Commission.

Mbeki complained, in his 1998 speech, about those who dodged taxes and then claimed that the state “failed to ‘deliver’ ”. That was four years into the ANC government. Now, a quarter-century later, it would be much harder to take such a complaint seriously: a full generation of failures have been telescoped into the events of the past week. Still, the need for a basic income grant and other redistributive mechanisms are clearer than ever, even if this means reapplying a “solidarity tax”, or implementing some kind of wealth tax. The catch, of course, is that this must go hand in hand with a demonstrable ability by those in power to govern cleanly and efficiently.

Of all the images from the past week that moved me, personally, the one that sticks is of a thickset elderly woman, limping painfully away from the Bidvest warehouse at Lamontville on Wednesday night, after the looters there had finally been dispersed by the police. Unlike the quick and the nimble before her, she got nothing for her troubles, except an injury as fellow looters stampeded away from the police. In evident pain, she explains this to the Newzroom Afrika reporter who manages to buttonhole her because she can’t get past him quickly enough. She seemed, to me, the epitome of the sagging “heavy load” of the dream deferred.

As she shuffled out of the national eye, empty-handed, back to her impoverished life, I thought of a line in Abahlali baseMjondolo’s statement: that South African elites “have always ignored the poor. They do not see us. When the riots happened suddenly the poor were before their eyes”.

I wondered if the woman had been vaccinated against Covid-19: she was certainly over fifty. Given the numbers, in the townships and informal settlements, the odds are that she has not. Does she even know that she no longer needs to register online?

The sugary crust of the dream deferred is the fantasy of a South African government that sets out to conduct mass vaccinations against Covid-19 through an online portal that requires cellphones when most South Africans can’t afford the broadband costs the telecom companies level at them — and when even those who can afford devices and electricity no longer have reliable access to the latter so they can charge the former.

It is the gleam of a vigilante’s gun, trying to protect his family, of course, and with it an increasingly untenable privilege. If you are reading these words then you, like me a Daily Maverick reader, are part of the confection, in that we “do what we can” while living our good lives in the fervent hope the crust does not crack and reveal the mess beneath it.

Suddenly, last week, the poor were before our eyes. They will remain so, for a while, as the crisis deepens in their communities, given food scarcity, lack of transport, job and livelihood losses and — looting is a superspreader event — a rampaging pandemic. Will we unsee this, once this particular insurrection and its aftermath are over?

On Friday, the “Free Jacob Zuma” campaign, fronted by the egregious Carl Niehaus, used last week’s events to demand the release of the former president: only Zuma, liberated, could calm the country. The gravest threat to our country’s stability is not that there is an old man sitting in the Estcourt Correctional Facility, and that his supporters have fomented an insurrection to re-establish their kleptocracy and keep themselves out of jail. It is that the vision of last week recedes from our eyes, not because the problem has been solved, but because we forget again. DM

Mark Gevisser’s most recent book is The Pink Line: Journeys Across the Worlds Queer Frontiers.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jo Stielau says:

    You’d find people less resistant to paying “Solidarity Tax” if it went straight to Gift of the Givers.

  • Clementina Van der Walt says:

    Brilliant article, thanks Mark

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Brilliant. Harrowingly beautiful.

  • Giles Griffin says:

    Excellently argued and written. A fine and eloquent summary of a complex situation. Thank you.

  • Clifford Bestall says:

    Thanks Mark for a thoughtful article. It makes obvious how much we need writers and artists to articulate our national pain.

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    Excellent insights, and so sad.

  • Billy Meyer says:

    Thank you for this article. I read it on my work laptop listening to medieval polyphony on iTunes as my life gets back together after last week. The contradictions are not lost on me.

  • Dick Binge Binge says:

    Our very own Dante’s inferno. Thank you Mark.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    I don’t think this makes any sense really – it’s so academic and removed from reality I have found it hard to read. A ramble because Gevisser thinks he needs to say something. Just be quiet please!

  • Jacki McInnes says:

    An excellent article, thank you. I too would gladly pay a solidarity tax if it went to a reputable organisation like Gift of the Givers. actually I already do.

  • Desmond McLeod says:

    In 1989 I was told by someone not to worry about a future under an ANC government, as the ANC had three of the most brilliant strategists ever produced by this country in their ranks, namely, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Thabo Mbeki. He said these three would guide SA into a great future!
    A question I have asked myself many times is how did the ANC get it so wrong? Surely in the years leading up to 1994, their strategists were working on a plan of action to address the underlying problems of the country. In my view its was obvious that the first priority – education, they needed to address a severe lack of education, particularly in the black community. Second priority – healthcare, third – housing. If we look back have any of these been addressed? Definitely not! In fact the opposite! Among early actions was the closing down of teachers training colleges, the closing down of nursing training colleges. Can anyone tell me how many new schools have been built (not private ones) in the past 25 years? How many new hospitals (again not private)? How many clinics to serve the poorer communities? I think we could probably count the numbers on one or two hands – in a country where the population has doubled in 25 years. Shocking, shocking! Hang your heads in shame ANC. As for the person who told me about the brilliant strategists – he must have been smoking his socks!

  • Fanie Tshabalala says:

    Yoh. Powerful article.

    Maybe that is the solution – a new tax. But those of us who pay tax are reluctant to send more money into another dark and corrupt pit. A catch 22!

  • Jeannine Ibbotson Ibbotson says:

    Excellent- thanks for making sure that our focus on the positive community spirit that arose does not hide these saddest truths

  • John Gosling says:

    Excellent article – BUT: Mark is almost accusatory about “us” forgetting about the poor once all this settles. Being part of the crust, I have been very aware of the fomenting rage and hopelessness just beneath the surface of our society. Mark is lite on solutions in which we the people could participate given that we find ourselves in a helpless situation. I support Gift of the Givers and other NGO’s doing excellent work. Any other suggestions, Mark? Maybe invite some of the indigent to share our property as Galgut suggests? The solution lies in an overhaul of the entire broken system – broken by the ANC. Who will fix it? Any thoughts?

    • Charles Parr says:

      With Mbeki it wasn’t a Dream Deferred it was a dream stolen from the majority of South Africans. No wonder another piece of dog poo arose out of the ashes of his …. up.

    • Carsten Rasch says:

      The cappuccino moment jumped out, like a Jill-in-the-box. Is it so bad, so callous, to walk down a street sipping at a take-away cappuccino? Maybe it was HOW she walked? Would it have been better if it was an americano? An unnecessary detail in an otherwise brilliant essay.

  • Nanette JOLLY says:

    Excellent article. Countries with equitable incomes, a narrow distance between the richest and poorest, do best in all respects of health, happiness, prosperity and peace. [The Spirit Level by Wilkinson & Pickett]

  • Pete Farlam says:

    Excellent article and suggestion re Gift of the Givers. I would also welcome more solutions. Reading Wahbie Long’s book I was struck but how it would have benefited from a chapter detailing solutions. One that seems obvious to me is having community liaison officers (or community development workers) who bridge the gap between individuals and the broader community. In a functioning social welfare state that would be the job of government but in the presence of weak government we need strong civil society organisations now more than ever.

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