Bryan Rostron has lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, New York and London. He has written for The New York Times, the London Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Spectator and was a correspondent for New Statesman. He is the author of Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues and five previous books, including the novels My Shadow and Black Petals. He lives in Cape Town.
For well over a decade violent protests erupted daily throughout South Africa. Unlike the recent paroxysm of unrest, such extensive evidence of rage and despair never triggered a truly national alarm – probably because those years of upheaval were largely localised, separated from suburbia, council chambers and Parliament. Like the fable of the frog unaware of being slowly boiled to death, those outbursts of township frustration gradually became accepted as the status quo. July’s cataclysm was the price of our complacency.
The difference last month was that the mayhem spread beyond trashing impoverished ghettos and impinged directly on a wider public. The eruption attracted worldwide attention and anguished domestic hand wringing – unlike many years of township “service delivery protests”, however aggressive or destructive.
The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin provocatively identified the source of this disconnect. During an abortive uprising in Dresden in 1849, Bakunin suggested that the rebels protect themselves by placing artworks appropriated from museums in front of the barricades. The bourgeoisie would not hesitate to send in troops to shoot people, he argued, but would flinch from harming a single painting. His tactic was not adopted, and the uprising was swiftly put down.
In South Africa, to really grab attention, it would appear that shopping malls are our equivalent of Bakunin’s museums. In a real rebellion, insurgents take to the barricades in the name of liberty and social justice. The epitaph of this messy episode came from a looter who complained: “I’m just sick of not having stuff.”
The faux-radical forces in South Africa, whether the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation (RET) or the EFF, are not interested in the hard grind of campaigning in factories, hostels and poor communities. The evidence shows that their focus, camouflaged by cheap rhetoric, is on self-enrichment. From Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma’s pampered offspring to Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, history might characterise them as the shopping-mall agitators. Massive inequality and pent-up rage should be fertile ground for an organised uprising. Yet to the extent that July’s mayhem was planned, it appears to have been plotted by (from the title of a comic Mafia novel) “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”.
Nevertheless the rampages, opportunistic or instigated, jolted a pervasive complacency among our professional classes – above all, the ANC leadership, police and intelligence agencies. Previously, for wealthier citizens, unrest had been viewed perhaps on television, or as black smoke rising from burning tires as cars sped by on a motorway. That became accepted as a South African way of life; even, the evidence suggests, by our somnolent government which by now, rather than “former” should be referred to as an “ex-liberation movement”.
In the past, with what seemed like monotonous regularity, from my study window I’ve often seen black smoke drift up from Hangberg, the poor “coloured” enclave in Hout Bay. Young people in balaclavas place tyres across Harbour Road and set them alight. They throw rocks at the police and the police fire back rubber bullets. It’s like a fatalistic ritual, as after a day or so everything subsides back to how it was before. The reasons differ – lack of housing, demands for facilities, or police drug raids – but the damage is invariably limited to Hangberg itself. The last time a crèche was burnt to the ground.
With no clear strategy, such “pop-up”’ riots can be oddly contradictory. A while ago, our mild octogenarian neighbour wanted to take his ailing wife to a nearby seafood restaurant to celebrate their wedding anniversary. That proved to be a riot day and he was stopped just short of his destination. But once this frail white man had explained his romantic mission, the masked youngsters pulled aside their barricade and chivalrously waved the anniversary couple though. The same day, the car of a respected Hangberg elder who earns a modest living as a chauffeur was blocked at that barricade and not allowed to pass.
For years a similar dysfunction has played out further afield, with infuriated commuters trashing trains or burning buses. Elsewhere clinics and schools have borne the brunt of local fury. There’s a habit in South Africa, an inheritance from the past, of resorting to violence in order to draw attention to demands. It’s an impasse, with growing but (so far) directionless anger. All too frequently, though, for lack of agreed objectives, this merely results in a few days of destructive chaos, as if violence in itself were somehow an answer.
The recent pandemonium was most likely the logical outcome of such disturbing nihilism – as the only evident intent appeared to be looting and devastation.
This points at all levels to a lack of leadership; not just from the cynical opportunists who imagined they could incite an insurrection via social media, but from local councillors, provincial MECs, the somnolent ANC drones in Parliament, hacks at Luthuli House and lacklustre ministers. After 27 years in power, the government has run out of energy and ideas, unable any longer to offer a decisive sense of direction. There’s no galvanising vision or fresh thinking. Instead, the party stumbles from crisis to crisis, regurgitating a litany of stale promises in the long trudge for a sense of purpose.
The ANC is not unique in running out of steam. Most governments do after many years in power. A quick tour of the global horizon reveals the state of some movements which might seem aligned with the ANC: in Cuba there has been recent unrest and protests, Venezuela is in dire straits; in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has started locking up opponents and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t faced an election since 2006. Closer to home, where is the reforming zeal in Angola, Mozambique or Zimbabwe?
To the right, in many parts of the world, there’s been a nasty swing to nationalism, even xenophobia. A surge of authoritarianism in the 21st century has given rise to what the Financial Times usefully termed “pluto-populism”. One reason for this is that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not witness a flowering of democracy, as proclaimed at the time, but instead ushered in a triumph for unrestrained capitalism. Consequently, in advanced economies such as the US and some European countries, the rising inequality of income is something that had previously been associated with developing nations. This has also produced a widening split between metropolitan elites and a populist hinterland of neglected towns and depressed rural areas.
In South Africa, with far greater inequalities, our metropolitan elite is relatively small and far outnumbered by the disaffected, “left-behind” citizens who live nearby in satellite townships. In July, it was not poor rural areas which witnessed the looting and destruction. During the “lost decade” fostered by the sleaze of Jacob Zuma, the country flirted with “pluto-populism”. Last month, the very lack of coherence among the rioters revealed that there are volatile urban mobs susceptible to the call of a charismatic pluto-populist.
At present, there’s only one obvious challenger with the demagogic talents for this role. Julius Malema, however, seems to have temporarily run out of steam himself. Normally reliant on violence, physical and verbal, the EFF has been muted: first by Covid; then the recent riots entirely outflanked them.
The grotesque, almost surreal fact is that the sabotage comes from within the ANC itself. Some have claimed that South Africa is at war with itself, yet it is the governing party which is in the throes of an exceptionally uncivil war. This runs through all state institutions and helps explain why neither the police nor the intelligence agencies were able to predict or respond appropriately to the unrest.
The national police commissioner and some of his top generals appear to be something of a criminal conspiracy themselves. For years they have refused to declassify documents – despite an “injunction” from the director-general of intelligence – which would almost certainly reveal that they have been involved in a corrupt, possibly treasonous conspiracy. All this stems from the ANC civil war.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of populists lurking among the Zuma/RET coalition and their camp followers. One sliver of positive news is that most of them also seem to be signed-up members of cliques that can neither shoot, strategise or think straight. That doesn’t stop them from pouring forth a torrent of words, never hesitating a moment for reflection, glossing over blatant contradictions and absurdities without shame or pause.
There’s a term that I’ve found helpful in interpreting this bizarre behaviour: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Tests revealed that those exhibiting this disorder tended to dramatically overestimate their own ability and performance. In short, “the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.
Not to be confused with low IQ, the Dunning-Kruger research revealed that those exhibiting such unawareness of their own capacities tended to pretend to know, for example, what made-up terms meant, so that Professor David Dunning concluded, “ignorance can feel like experience”.
Think of some familiar names in a loose State Capture coalition: Ace Magashule, Brian Molefe, Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi, Dudu Myeni, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Iqbal Survé and (excruciatingly) Carl Niehaus. Next time you see one of this unblushing coterie giving evidence to the Zondo Commission, or failing to answer questions in court or on TV, say to yourself: “Dunning-Kruger!”
But before we get too cocky that these malcontents couldn’t organise a counter-revolution, we should remember the only bulwark at present against those ANC dissidents and insurrectionists is the ANC’s moderate centre. Yet there are so many duds left at the top: Jessie Duarte clinging to “democratic centralism” and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma citing Covid to invoke “class suicide”. It is by no means certain that the ANC has the ability or agility to confront this crisis – or that the Ramaphosa centre can hold.
If that implodes, the long-suffering frog would have finally boiled.
That would be a triumph for the unscrupulous. The official opposition couldn’t possibly step in. Imagine what would happen if the DA turned the army on black rioters. One solution might be a government of national unity, with the DA, Cope and Bantu Holomisa. The uncivil war within the ANC makes that almost impossible.
More likely, in extremis, is that a panicky ANC could turn to its charismatic former youth leader, the pluto-populist in waiting, even if by then Malema had swapped his red uniform for orange prison overalls.
Despite our early promise, the country has suffered widely from a form of Dunning-Kruger overconfidence, with few of us exempted. After over a decade of complacency in the face of daily violent protests, will we now wake up? DM
The sound of Krakatoa exploding travelled around the earth three times.
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