South Africa


Things fall apart in South Africa today and ANC leadership appears unable to act decisively

Illustrative image | Sources: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images | James Oatway/Getty Images | EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook | EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA| Wikimedia | Leila Dougan

There is a general sense of ‘things falling apart’ in South Africa today, something more than corruption or widespread ineffectiveness, but a broader systemic failure in the state at various levels but also, manifestations of social disintegration, breaking of already fairly fragile bonds between inhabitants of the country, and apparently more extensive abusive behaviour.

It is necessary to return to the notion that the people who were oppressed under apartheid remain oppressed in present conditions, more than 27 years after the onset of democracy. That is not to say that those who are oppressed today are exactly the same people or categories of people as those under apartheid. Some have escaped, to a greater or lesser extent, into better living situations and the conditions of some may have worsened.

The manifestation of this oppression means the failure to meet the “basic needs” of most of the inhabitants of the country, as required under the Constitution. It also entails widespread violence and human rights abuse directed mainly against the poor, as witnessed in extended form, during the lockdown. It is, however, a fact of life that the poor and marginalised can count on police violence as a feature of their lives.

State violence is also part of widespread social violence in society at large, generally the preferred method of resolving conflicts in the country, especially on the part of men.

But the embrace of oppression has also expanded to include new categories of people or those who figured only in a limited way in pre-democracy South Africa. These include black people who come from other parts of Africa, or parts of Asia, who experience ongoing xenophobic attacks, sometimes emanating from state harassment, including violence or failure to clarify their status or police demanding financial bribes or sex to leave them alone.

Sometimes these attacks derive from South African citizens, in townships or other under-privileged conditions, who are hungry and often unemployed and who may blame foreign-born black people for their plight, either because they believe it is so or because they are egged on by local traders or others who aim to benefit from xenophobic attacks on African or Asian traders who derive from outside South Africa.

Reports have documented that police generally do not protect those under attack or prevent looting or destruction of their resources and they have sometimes been witnessed joining in the stealing.

Violence has been a marked feature of the managing of lockdown. Lockdown has also created a more vulnerable home space, increasing gender-based violence. But the general prevalence of violence in South Africa impacts especially women and gays, lesbians and other LGBTQIA people. Most of these attacks may not be by police, but they have proved unresponsive to complaints of gender or sexually based attacks when reported to police stations and often in the courts.

The official violence is systemic, not simply a few “bad eggs”, because while there are many honourable and professional police and other public servants, those who conduct illegal or corrupt activities are sufficiently numerous to constitute a systemic phenomenon.

The continuity of systemic oppression is related to the political dominance and simultaneous gradual collapse and disintegration of the authority and legitimacy of the ANC as an organisation of freedom fighters. The notion of a freedom fighter is not simply a slogan. One merely needs to consider the heroic figures in liberation history to whom contemporary ANC discourse still tries to link itself, to understand that there was a time when the ANC did fight for freedom and put all its resources towards achieving freedom, and was identified with a freedom that had not yet been realised.

The notion of a freedom fighter is not restricted to well-known figures like Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Yusuf Dadoo and others. There are many people in remote areas, not appearing on maps of the time who fought for freedom, often in the Bantustans and also in many cases without formal recruitment to the ANC or other organisations. They did what they thought would be required by the ANC or in their own understanding to advance the cause of freedom.

Unfortunately, the hope that many cherished for an ever-broadening notion of freedom unfolding after 1994 has not been realised. It is not because Nelson Mandela and others made “secret deals” with the apartheid regime and capital to ensure that the poor would never have the opportunity to improve their lot. It is documented that some of the early communications with the regime aroused suspicion and it may be that some would have wanted such deals, but it was not within the power of any individual or small group of people to achieve.

The notion of an “elite pact” deciding everything in secret before 1994 is founded on a notion of politics that is itself elitist. That an elite pact could decide what happened after 1994 depends on erasing the role that the masses played in forcing the apartheid regime to the negotiating table to concede democratic rule. The negotiations derived from a multi-pronged attack on apartheid on a range of fronts where the role of the masses was decisive. This led to the enactment of a new Constitution, which provided the basis for an ongoing expansion of liberty of all the inhabitants of South Africa.

There are a number of signs at the moment of disintegration of the South African social and political order. It is manifested in widespread lawlessness, violence, assassinations, apparently unstoppable attacks on railway lines, assaults on and stealing of ammunition from police stations, explosions destroying valuable energy resources and a range of other actions, sometimes described as “inexplicable” attacks on economically important infrastructure. This comes at a time of economic crisis entailing widespread job losses and low growth — with extensive hunger among sections of the population.

South Africa saw a complex series of violent actions in July, sometimes termed an insurrection and also entailing extensive looting, constituting a big challenge to the constitutional order costing lives and billions of rands in looting and destruction.

Only a short while ago a group of self-proclaimed Struggle veterans held three leading government figures hostage. Many of those involved in this action have criminal records, in some cases for committing serious crimes. That this and the July violence could happen points to serious intelligence and security flaws.

This occurred with ongoing political assassinations in the run-up to the forthcoming local government elections, killings that are by no means a new phenomenon in South Africa, spreading from a predominantly KwaZulu-Natal base to the rest of South Africa.

Again, much of this is done with impunity. To some extent, the impunity derives from links between lawbreakers and those who are charged with law enforcement in South Africa, and many of these people are linked to political parties, especially the ruling ANC. The propensity to violence and assassinations was enhanced through the absorption in large numbers of former Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) warlords into the ANC as part of “peace making” in the 1990s.

The problem for the ANC is that even if they are complicit in this, even if they have been lackadaisical in enforcing the law; if they now want to prevent assassinations and violence, it is not the law but lawbreaking that has become normative.

We know that a police officer like Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear was assassinated in the Western Cape apparently because of his determination to clamp down on the illegal spread of weapons from the South African Police Services (SAPS) to gangsters and other lawbreakers. This is just one such case that received public attention.

The police service is split down the middle, with some leading figures in the fight against criminality themselves dismissed or suspended or shifted to less strategically significant positions. One thinks here of Generals Jeremy Vearey, André Lincoln, and Peter Jacobs, among others.

In characterising the divisions alluded to as disintegration, and perhaps breaking up of the South African polity, we can identify certain moments as being important in this process. In the case of former president Jacob Zuma, one had a fairly strong leader deciding to use his presidential powers to undermine the foundations of the Constitution. This happened and was initially condoned by the ANC and its allies, despite laws laying down very clear demarcations of what was allowed and what disallowed.

The process of disintegration has however continued under the “New Dawn” of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The way in which disintegration is now happening under Ramaphosa is not out of the strength of his leadership, but rather its weakness. The same process of disintegration is continuing, albeit more through passivity, through creating or enabling an environment where wrongdoers are still able to continue to undermine the social order.

Ramaphosa may not be actively undermining the rule of law through acts of corruption and patronage. However, he has proven to be unable to manage the responsibilities of a head of state, to ensure the liberties of all through maintaining legality and policing criminality.

In fact, Ramaphosa is in the habit of being silent about very important systemic breaches. In the case of the violence wreaked against the people of South Africa, and in particular the poorest of the poor during the lockdown, Ramaphosa has mainly said nothing. In relation to the instability that he described as insurrection, he has not explained why there have not been prosecutions and clampdowns on wrongdoers, who were many.

Ambiguity is dangerous in a context of a challenge to institutions and social order. Anyone who wants to undermine the state, anyone who wants to ensure that state institutions disintegrate, finds ambiguity on the side of the authorities to be an ally in the process they undertake. People need to demand firm action in defence of constitutional rights, preventing violence and also imposing a duty to meet the basic needs of all who live in South Africa. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived. 


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All Comments 23

  • The bloody useless ANC “leadership” is responsible for EVERYTHING that is falling apart in SA. What a spectacular track record of failures. Literally ZERO success stories.
    But hey, please give us another chance.

    And where democracy fails in SA… most people probably will vote for them again.

    35000 South African emigrated to the Netherlands in the last year alone.
    These are skilled, tax paying citizens. The people that are required to fix this bloody mess that the ANC created with their racist policies and looting.
    And then think about the numbers leaving for the US, UK, EU, MU, NZ, AU.
    It is HUGE.

    Tax base is shrinking, less money for these fools to steal but their greed is overpowering. They will not stop. “I have not joined the struggle to be poor”

    My advice is… get out ASAP. Nothing is going to change. It will only get worse. Less people paying tax, more social grants.
    I have lost all hope.

    • Unfortunately that is the sad truth of what is happening here, a complete breakdown of law and order under a government that is too scared to act against perpetrators of any kind in case their own file gets to the top of the pile and is made public.

  • CR inherited a mess and has appeared to be going out of his way not to offend anyone in his fractured party. With state looting at a grand scale, we were expecting strong intervention. It hasn’t happened. While we still live in a country with free press and free elections, I will not give up hope. Vote them out. Will the ANC secede power gracefully after 30 years? That will be the question in 2023. CR is the right person for such a handover.

    • It is just as well that someone is optimistic here. A peaceful handover from the ANC to any other party is less likely than a Martian takeover tomorrow.

    • The unfortunate problem is that the vast majority of the voters do not understand how democracy is supposed to work. If they are unhappy with the ANC, they will not vote for another party. They will just not vote.
      One could argue that Cyril is the best possible leader for SA that the ANC can put forward. Even though he is unwilling to act against anybody in the ANC or EFF for that matter.
      Another scenario to consider is that if the ANC have a poor performance in this election, it will weaken Cyril’s power within the ANC and he will likely be removed in the next conference in Dec 2022 and be replaced by a RET faction member. Possibly Ace. And then it is a one way street to Zim 2.0

      The RET faction is not scared to act decisively. They will quickly fire all the Cyril appointees in the NPA, NSA, SARS, SAA, Eskom and replace them with corrupt figures like Shaun the Sheep, Koko and the likes, so that they can continue their looting unabated.

      We will be back with a Zuma like administration within 6 months after Dec 2022.

  • If you vote for a small party you will help kill this country.

    It is simply about numbers and the ability to drive change.

    Vote DA.

    • You completely missed the point that Raymond Suttner is making. This is not about political parties or the size of any given party. It’s about strong, effective and competent leadership. The ANC as the largest and governing political party is just more visible and seemingly more corrupt than anyone else. If the leaders who have been coming from their ranks are the best that is on offer, then we are certainly facing a very bleak future, and a very soon future that is too.

      The DA’s leadership squabbles in the Western Cape makes me think that their own leadership pool has limited depth too.

      Overall not much to look forward to…

      • The point that most seem to miss and what this country needs most is KISS – as in Keep it Simple Stupid.

        All you can do do force change is vote. And vote for the party most likely to drive change.

        The DA.

        The rest is just noise.

    • Do you honestly feel the DA has driven country-wide (not just WC) change for the last 20 years? It will never be more than a 20% party, and they’ll be lucky if they even get close to that on Monday. To me they lost credibility with current leadership that include Steenhuizen, Zille and JP Smith. It can only be a new party with opposing ANC policies, but inclusive of all South African supporters to a ratio of the population breakdown by race that will ever be able to the dethrone the ANC and EFF. Of the current parties, only ActionSA stand a chance long term. But as they are only standing in 6 municipalities, it is also way to soon to judge them. For now we are stuck with the ANC as we yet again embark on a period of darkness, and Eskom load-shedding is only part of that.

  • I agree with the article except that secret deals were made – and it meant that there were very few convictions for apartheid era crimes, and that abuses and violence in ANC camps were also overlooked. This disregard for justice poisoned the chalice that we sip from now. Principles were discarded: AIDS denialism and the arms deal were the early fruits of this approach.

  • Thanks Raymond for this sobering article. Depressing reading, yet even more depressing is the silence of the citizens of this country.

    • most of them are below the poverty line.

      Feed our people.
      House our people.
      Educate our people.

      Only then will our country have any form of chance.

      Vote DA.

  • The anc is very successfully in process of reverse-engineering SA into Africa. “Developing” from a first world country with infrastructure (Main roads and a functioning railway system) and SOEs that worked to just another African country.

  • A searingly honest assessment by one who has sacrificed much in his life over the past 50 years, in pursuit of the ideals of constitutionalism and justice. Also courageous enough to call out the abuse of power from within the movement, for which he has paid a heavy price. To those who thoughtlessly jerk their knees in response, check your own record of principled commitment to such ideals. Strength to you, Raymond.

  • An excellent and thought provoking article, full of insight and sad truths. Cyril Ramaphosa is not the statesman we thought, he allows important things to slide, and does not have the courage to make unpopular decisions. Unless the ANC is voted out, things will remain dire , or even worsen.

  • Reading, or re-reading China Achebe’s seminal book on the way “Things fall Apart” in Africa, though written of course about West Africa and by an African academic, just underlines how completely and thoroughly South Africa has become pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

    One of the reasons is how few South African leaders have travelled into Africa, and I recall a comment from Thabo Mbeki, when he claimed to have travelled in Nigeria, that venturing into and onto VI, is decidedly not the same thing as experiencing real Africa.

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