South Africa


South Africa’s post-disaster choices: Social upheaval, Dictatorship or Renaissance?

South Africa’s post-disaster choices: Social upheaval, Dictatorship or Renaissance?
(Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

In what directions do societies move after major disasters? This is the theme of a research project that the Mapungubwe Institute has initiated. The research deals with local and global experiences as we emerge from the Covid pandemic and have to navigate the disaster that is the war in Ukraine.

Major disasters do not necessarily generate novel social fissures. They tend rather to sharpen existing contradictions and create a sense of urgency for their resolution. In trying to manage a disaster’s repercussions, three broad categories of journeys often play out.

The first direction is one of social upheaval that either results in new social systems or a complete collapse, with the mutual destruction of contending forces. This, in a sense, is what happened with the 1917 socialist revolution in Russia at the end of World War 1. On the other extreme is the dislocation that left ruins in the Machu Picchu citadel of the Inca in the Americas, and Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa, and other such civilisations.

The second possibility is the emergence of dictatorship either as an insidious creeping in of populism and social acquiescence or as an abrupt seizure of the political reins. 

Many coups have been carried out on the African continent and elsewhere in the name of removing governments accused of failing to deal with the impact of one disaster or the other. Nazism emerged in Germany in the context of the socioeconomic consequences of the reparations imposed at Versailles by the victors at the end of World War 1.

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The third broad direction is one of reformation and renaissance.

Although many changes in social stratification, organisation and settlement influenced the advent of the European Renaissance, it occurred against the backdrop of a subsiding bubonic plague pandemic which had caused the deaths of more than 70 million people in Asia, Europe and Africa in the middle of the 14th century. The renaissance was associated with technological and architectural innovation, artistic creations, the deliberate study of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, critical engagement with religious texts as well as interactions with other civilisations including in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

It should be acknowledged, though, that social development is complex, and elements within these categories of journeys may flow into one another.

In some instances, societies may start off by plodding along the same pre-disaster path, but gradually trend in one of the three directions. What is critical is that social agency plays a central role, as a mass response to prevailing conditions and as a reaction to leaders’ political and intellectual choices. 

An appropriate interpretation or a misreading of factors that led to the disaster and of conditions before the disaster – and debate on how society can embark on a better path – influence the direction in which societies move.

South Africa

Humanity as a whole is grappling with these issues at various levels of intensity in the post-Covid era. It is understandable that this is more intense in South Africa, given the depth of the social problems in our society – not helped by the damage being wrought by Eskom’s load shedding with its dire economic, social and psychological effects. 

The difficulties facing South Africans range from low investment and unemployment rates to the high cost of living, serious dysfunction in many municipalities as well as the soaring murder rates, gender-based violence and other crimes. Add to this a seeming sudden surge in pitbull attacks and itinerant big cats, and things can seem quite awful!

Does this, though, mean that we should succumb to fatalistic pessimism? Aligned to this is a narrative that South Africa has, since 1994, been incapable of high rates of economic growth and job creation. This is to ignore the fact that, in the 20 years before 1994, per capita growth had in fact declined by about 11%; while it increased by about 33% in the 21 years from 1994. Unemployment during the period of high growth in the 2000s was reduced from 31% to 23%. However, per capita growth declined by about three percent between 2014 and 2019; and the unemployment rate is today at about 33%.     

Profound changes

Do the difficulties mean that we should underplay the profound changes that have taken place since the attainment of democracy – a form of acontextual presentism?

Besides access to many social services that Blacks in particular didn’t have, Black people are today the majority in skilled and professional categories and their proportion in senior and top management positions is increasing. There has also been an improvement in gender participation across most areas of social endeavour, especially in the public sector.

As recent protests have underlined, there are many problems in tertiary institutions. But the number of students in these institutions has doubled since 1994; and, from less than half in 1994, African students now constitute about 75% of this cohort.

Acontextual presentism also includes an approach that underplays the fact that, for over two years, Covid scuppered many of the plans to deal with declining per capita growth and State Capture.

Progress is being made in the operations of such agencies as the National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Revenue Service. But the pace is slow and the impact hardly visible to citizens. 

In her recent letter, Busi Mavuso of Business Leadership South Africa applauds “impressive achievements” such as “the long-delayed auction of spectrum, shifting the regulation around private generation of electricity, improving the ease of access to visas for both tourists and workers, improving the process to access water use rights”. But these are too few, their impact is hardly felt by citizens, and there will be long time lags before many take effect.   

And so, understanding context does not mean that South Africans should be understanding and grateful for the current state of affairs. Such is the nature of progressive realisation of rights that, once granted, a right does become a given in the social psychology. This applies especially to young people, who have grown up in an environment in which many rights have become the default of South African life.

However, failure to recognise the progress made since the attainment of democracy and the efforts since 2018, including during and after the Covid pandemic, can have the effect of questioning the very utility of the democratic dispensation. 

Combined with resistance to the campaign to end State Capture and combat corruption, as well as surreptitious efforts to undermine a democratically elected government, the situation does become complex. Therefore, some measure of care and level-headedness is required as we seek to answer that existential question: in what directions do societies move after major disasters?

Fraught geopolitics

In the global terrain, the challenge is how to pursue the country’s interests in the midst of fraught geopolitics. We must appreciate that the world can be a very cruel and lonely place. With growing mercantilism and “great power” confrontation which, as many argue, is bound to get worse, we cannot expect any favours. 

Worse still, history teaches that, when cold and hot wars among major powers become the norm, rules are thrown out of the window, with those who do not conform either way being undermined and punished. And so, EU rules on false codling moths in fruit and Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms, and the US African Growth and Opportunity Act can mutate to grow Ukrainian and Taiwanese legs.

Lest we forget, much worse happened during the Cold War. Besides the millions who perished in all manner of interventions by the “west”, ask the families of Lumumba (Congo), Sukarno (Indonesia) and Allende (Chile), or about Mandela’s arrest in 1962 – to name just a few instances – to appreciate the dangers.

But before becoming starry-eyed, also ask, particularly on current issues, whether the South African government has to strain repeatedly to explain an issue that arises in interactions with their Russian counterparts: that we can only consider new nuclear generation if and when the country can afford it – and this within the law.

And also ask whether Transnet would be experiencing paralysing problems with locomotives and spare parts due to the standoff with the state-owned Chinese CRRC Corporation arising from the company’s conduct during State Capture. 

What is the lesson from this? It is that, if the global tensions are not resolved – and if Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 warning about the womb that bore the beast of war comes to pass in the current age – the machinations are bound to become more ruthless. It is thus necessary for South Africa to shed any modicum of naivety and credulity, and navigate the minefield of volatile geopolitics collectively, in the country’s interest. 

Strange as it may sound, this is the mindset that underpinned the approach among South Africa’s adversaries in the early 1990s: that the negotiations would be conducted among South Africans and not mediated by any external force.

What direction for South Africa?

And so, in what direction will South Africa move as it tries to climb out of the Covid-19 and other disasters?

This depends on the quality of leadership – political, business, working class, religious, youth, women and otherwise – and the social agency of the broad mass of South Africans. The starting point should be an honest appraisal of the situation before, during and after the pandemic.

Ideas on how our society can embark on its renaissance are contained in many policy documents, most of which are broadly agreed among the social partners. 

There are of course some gaps. 

On the energy front, for instance, mobilising Eskom workers to become partners in addressing the operational and security challenges is fundamental. It is instructive that the plan to confront the energy crisis hardly mentions workers. This ignores the fact that they are the operators of Eskom’s grid and can at least become the eyes and ears of society in dealing with theft and sabotage. Trade unions operating in state entities need to be engaged on a security compact. 

Further, there has not been much focus on demand management: if the estimation is accurate that geysers consume some 30-60% of household energy consumption, could more be done by households and the tens of thousands of businesses who keep the geysers permanently on?

At a strategic level, choosing a sustainable way forward also requires a mindset to methodically pursue long-term goals. If the assessment of party performance in future elections is accurate, how should society prepare for such outcomes in a manner that prevents instability and a national political implosion?

Can alliances be forged around objectives of the National Development and Reconstruction and Recovery Plans? 

What changes should be considered in the post-2024 review of the country’s electoral system, so as to ensure stability and a dogged pursuit of the country’s constitutional ideals?     

These are just some of the immediate and strategic issues to which South Africans should dispassionately apply their minds. Then, the choice on our post-disaster direction will be a South African renaissance. DM

Joel Netshitenzhe is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute (Mistra).


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “This depends on the quality of leadership. The starting point should be an honest appraisal of the situation before, during and after the pandemic”. But that’s the problem isn’t it. A not too bright ANC hide bound by self interest, ideology and an inferiority complex.

  • Ann Bown says:

    Nice to see you again Joel! Thank you.

  • Jimbo Smith says:

    The question not posed in this lengthy article is not asked; does SA have the quality of leadership to extricate us out of this horrendous ANC gifted mess? Look no further than the farce by name of “Cabinet reshuffle”. If the President has not yet concluded that he has a hopelessly incompetent bunch of “Ministers”, then we are in deep trouble!

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    A well reasoned assessment by a former insider.
    It is significant that Mr Netshitenzhe is no longer on the NEC. A shame that a voice of reason is no longer in the inner circle. He is correct – a lot has changed for black people as well as white but so much more could have been accomplished had the waste been contained and had resources been ploughed into the establishment of new schools, universities, training colleges and hospitals.
    A major reason for the strain on our existing institutions and infrastructure has been the lack of will on the part of local, provincial and central government to maintain and grow the cake instead of eating it. One doubts that this will change while there are assets to be stripped.
    Mr Netshitenzhe would serve the country well by aligning himself with those who wish to reverse the downhill slide or by creating an inclusive New South African Party with an election platform based on filling the gaps he refers to above.
    An thoughtful assessment but without some action it will be another cry in the wilderness.

  • I enjoyed this article Joel and am encouraged by an outlook that looks to identify and resolve fundamental issues SA is facing. I have to confess that I am so tired and frustrated that the problems have begun to seem insurmountable and the leadership ( all of it, no political or economic bias) appears bloated , spoilt , uncaring and incapable of doing anything constructive.

  • virginia crawford says:

    With all due respect, no mention of corruption, the appalling lack of leadership in the ANC? As a long time ANC insider, it’s hard to understand where you stand on these issues.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Well said, Sydney, its all about the quality of leadership – or even leadership at all.

    That which we have is too often MIA, too often dictatorial, rather than listening, and thus far too often off veering in totally the wrong direction.

    Some say we need another Mandela – but what we really need is another Jan Smuts who largely birthed the League of Nations that begat the UN.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    New South African Party? We already have the DA with all the credentials required. Yet another party will take decades to grow.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    1/ Quote: “keep the geysers permanently on?”

    The quickest way to save a lot of electricity is to install rooftop solar heated geysers. Make these tax free and electrical consumption will plummet!

    2/ Quote:
    “At a strategic level, choosing a sustainable way forward also requires a mindset to methodically pursue long-term goals.”

    Voters must think before voting. Vote for a party with a proven record of good delivery. No party will ever be perfect so just for the best there is. Tiny parties do not have a recored of delivery, they are very suspect. They do have a record of destroying coalitions.

    3/ Quote:
    “Can alliances be forged around objectives of the National Development and Reconstruction and Recovery Plans?”

    Yes, serious parties can form alliances around existing plans. However the National Plans may need to be changed and improved.

    4/ Quote:
    “What changes … in the post-2024 … electoral system, so as to ensure stability and a dogged pursuit of the country’s constitutional ideals?”

    Tiny parties of less than +/- 5% should not be eligible to stand.

  • Johan Buys says:

    good heavens! I cannot believe drivel like this earns the right to be published anywhere.

    I don’t know which paragraph to start with ripping to shreds the sheer rubbish.

    At the end of the day we are almost at equilibrium : the Apartheid Nats abused us since independence about for as long as the ANC abused us since the rainbow nation. I am unsure who screwed the pooch more.

    plain old ordinary South Africans are left with the impression that all that has changed is the color of the party salute?

    “ This is to ignore the fact that, in the 20 years before 1994, per capita growth had in fact declined by about 11%; while it increased by about 33% in the 21 years from 1994. ”

    That is entirely statistically rubbish. Whether measure GDP per capita or GDP growth per capita = rubbish! Go look up $ GDP per capita. The Nats inverted runt/dollar. The ANC worsened that ratio 6-fold. The dollar is not a perfect scale but it is a damned good measure of quality.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Models based on far removed history don’t work for me. The article also seems to downplay the extent of the crisis facing South Africa. We have destroyed so much of the country’s capacity and reduced the many marginalized people to a state of complete despair. There is no mention of the education crisis and the fact that we send out half a million young people into the economy each year with no employable education or skill to enable them to survive. There certainly is no plan in place on how to turn this fundamental social and economic need around. We are all anxious about the outcome of the 2024 elections as to whether it will bring a populist government (ANC -EFF coalition) or a cobbled together middle of the road coalition. Nowhere are we seeing a clear articulation of how we can build a new South Africa to replace the old one that we have so successfully destroyed. Whether it comes from leadership or bottom up communication, we will have to work very hard to overcome division by continually calling out those who promote it through pointless personal power contestations. We need more repaired bridges, not more broken ones. South Africa can only be rebuilt by the involvement of all its people.

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