South Africa


Social cohesion after the 2021 unrest — where there’s political will, there is a way

Social cohesion after the 2021 unrest — where there’s political will, there is a way
Smoke rises from a Makro building set on fire overnight in Umhlanga, north of Durban, on July 13, 2021 as several shops, businesses and infrastructure are damaged in the city, following four nights of continued violence and looting. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP)

In order to build social cohesion, investments in development at the local level are vital — investments that directly support locally identified and inclusive projects and programmes that make immediate differences to people’s basic quality of life.

Depending on your time compass and location, the violent unrest that swept across many parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021 either seems like yesterday or ages ago.

Whichever it is, we were all recently reminded of the events in a very direct and detailed way when the Panel of Experts (PoE) appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to investigate the unrest released their report in February. Most crucially, we were reminded that the unrest was an “orgy of violence that left thousands of people injured, an estimated 354 dead and over R50-billion lost to the economy”.

In its “key findings”, the PoE report identified several causes of the unrest. Among the most central causes were: the failure of the intelligence services; a lack of cooperation and information sharing in the safety cluster; the destructive factional battles waged in the ANC; and a general lack of accountability among government officials and political leadership.

However, the report is clear that underpinning all of these are gross socioeconomic inequalities, intensified conditions of mass poverty and the consistent failures of the state when it comes to providing basic services and security for the population. Most centrally, the report argues that these foundational crises have greatly exacerbated the lack of social cohesion in our country. As it states, there is an “urgent need to build an equal, inclusive and just society, if there is to be lasting peace and stability”.

In order to build this social cohesion, investments in development at the local level are going to be vital. Indeed, the report urges government to facilitate conditions and pathways for vibrant conditions for development at the level of local government. Such investments in development cannot be in the mould of yet another ill-conceived mega economic and infrastructure growth plan, all previous versions of which are now virtually paralysed by fear, and loathing, following years of looting. Rather, what is needed are investments that directly support locally identified and inclusive projects and programmes that make immediate differences to people’s basic quality of life.

This appeal is not new. One can go back to the dawn of our democracy in 1994 and point to the quickly jettisoned Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) or to later top-down successors such as, the National Development Plan or the 2016 White Paper on Safety and Security which seeks to provide substance and direction to achieving the NDP’s objectives of “Building Safer Communities”, which is in turn, offered as “a blueprint for South Africa to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030”.

The more jaded (or some would say, realistic) among us might see these words as simply the relentless churning of policy machinery which feeds and shields a political elite while doing little in the way of implementation. They might well be right. However, what does exist amidst the cumulative “mess” of this policy architecture is a framework for a progressive developmental and social justice approach to human security and safety in South Africa, which lies at the heart of the PoE report’s recommendations.

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Despite all the systemic crises and failures of the past, what is clear is that political will can be activated in the shortest possible time when desired. Possibly the most strategic contribution in relation to meaningful local development in this regard is the very direct responsibility and funding mandate now given to local government in respect of community safety. This is because it comes with the ability to prioritise and fund — across all spheres of government — needs identified with the active participation of local communities. In fact, the associated Integrated Development Planning (IDP) processes should turn all budgeting on its head.

A large portion of what any department requests could be directly built on these localised and democratised input needs. Meanwhile, a well-defined but largely neglected system of community safety forums and a methodology of diagnostic assessment, prioritisation, planning and monitoring and evaluation could be activated to integrate these input needs and respond to ongoing management and intervention needs. What these forums provide is an agreed and funded mandate infrastructure to support all role players in and out of government and in all three spheres.

There are many, well-researched and argued reasons why this hasn’t been achieved in practice. But, for activists and practitioners that have been struggling and advocating for years, it has long been clear that the main missing ingredient is a lack of political will. And, it goes something like this: “we don’t want messy localised budgets; we can’t support social cohesion with the facilitation support it needs; we would rather reply on top-down macro-budgeting and allow the trickle effect to do its work.”

What is equally clear is that this trickle-down is not working at all. In this regard, the PoE report has this to say:

“Most important of all, government, at all levels, must seriously attend to the socioeconomic challenges facing the country. We will be failing in our duty if we fail to express the profound frustration from, in particular the civil society, business and security sector delegations we met, that the government is not paying sufficient attention to this matter.”

Indeed, the report specifically reminds us that the unrest of July 2021 must be viewed in the context of the multiple crises and challenges that animate contemporary South Africa, key among them being:

  • “The weakness of State institutions generally, a phenomenon that has been referred to as the hollowing out of State institutions;
  • “High unemployment, with youth unemployment above 70% and no consistent, continuous plan to address this challenge;
  • “Inherited high levels of poverty and deep inequality;
  • “Poor spatial planning, leading to overcrowded and unsuitable living conditions for many, with informal settlements emerging in crowded urban spaces as people move to the cities in search of opportunities; and
  • “Rampant corruption at various levels of government.”

All of these and more are regularly the subject of community safety plans. What is lacking is the political will to translate the embryo of meaningful interventions and plans at a realistic community scale into practical implementation in order to start turning things around. A good example is the Eastern Cape Provincial Safety Strategy which, like so many others, has largely fallen by the wayside, starved of political, management and financial resources. If these were available to support the policy and legislative infrastructure in place, the implementation deficit could, over time, be eliminated.

The report sets out what needs to be done:

“The social cohesion and support programmes, including solidarity networks that bridge the racial and class divides in society must be supported by all social partners. The police should work closely with other government departments at district level to ensure that there is an integrated plan to address the socioeconomic ills that make the population vulnerable to criminal conduct. Government should pay close attention to the issues of poverty, underdevelopment and inequality. While we accept that the issues are top of mind, there does not seem to exist a clear plan, with budgets and a timetable, to effectively address this matter.”

The question has been and will remain; is there the political will to do what is eminently possible and necessary? DM

Sean Tait is Director of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum; Dale T McKinley is a political activist and researcher-writer who presently works at the International Labour, Research and Information Group. Both are members of the Anti-Repression Collective out of whose work and advocacy this article emanates.


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