South Africa


The 2023 Winter of Discontent is upon us — and we’re facing it more divided than ever

The 2023 Winter of Discontent is upon us — and we’re facing it more divided than ever

One of the defining features of South Africa’s past 15 years has been a massive decline in social cohesion. We are a country divided.

When it comes to solving our problems, we are more apart than we have ever been since 1994. We can’t even agree on technical issues, as in, how do we solve our deeply damaging power crisis? These rifts are sure to grow ever deeper in what is likely to be a hard, dark and disillusioned winter of 2023. This will make our real and pervasive problems even harder to solve than they already are. One thing seems certain though — those who deliberately seek to divide us will feel even better than they do right now.

A brief examination of two of the main issues in our politics reveals the extent of our division. 

At Eskom, you may believe that former CEO André de Ruyter saw himself as some kind of misguided hero, that instead of focusing on fixing Eskom he wrote a book, that he put national security at risk by using an apartheid government killer to investigate what he saw as corruption. In the process, he has quite literally left us in the dark.

Or you may believe that he did what no one else in his job has done before, and revealed how corruption at Eskom is linked to politicians, and how politicians and the Eskom board are now deliberately ignoring his claims, instead attacking him for telling the truth. 

This division even moves into the technical domain.

Normally, arguments about renewable power, coal-fired power stations and coal exports would be left to experts. In many countries, it is likely that these things have never been political issues (a strong exception is Australia, where a massive coal mine became the symbol of a fight over global warming policy). It is difficult to explain that seemingly ordinary citizens on social platforms are so energised over the energy availability factor and the cost of Karpower power ships, issues they are, at best, not sufficiently well informed about.

And yet here we are.

The debates and arguments about our foreign policy approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be easier to understand.

If you grew up watching James Bond films, it’s pretty easy to see every Russian as a villain. Particularly one who invades a country claiming to want to be part of the West.

If you grew up knowing that Russia, as part of the USSR, helped your fight for liberation more than most Western nations, then you could be convinced that the United States’ moves of today look a lot like they did during the apartheid years.

While there is much legitimate comment within these positions, one must also be aware of the people who seek to divide us.

This was clearly demonstrated during the pandemic when people were encouraged to broadcast messages claiming that vaccinations do not work (to be clear: vaccines do work and have saved millions of lives). Some of this appeared to be aimed at undermining humanity itself. It is hard to see any other reason for this.

There are many players and many motivations for moves and battles in these information wars. For example, it is likely that the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, made his claim about our government selling weapons to Russia so publicly because he deliberately wanted to stoke an argument in our society. If this is the case, he has certainly succeeded.

The ANC is falling apart

There are many reasons these divisions are so acute now.

One of them is simply that the only movement in our history which has tried to represent people from all of our communities, the ANC, is now falling apart, right in front of our eyes, and not so slowly any more. It is no longer able to play a role in bringing unity and being the centre of South Africa. It is likely that this process of devastation will continue.

Ahead of next year’s elections, there has never been so much at stake for the country itself and for every active politician within our borders. Many of them, in a sometimes desperate race to claim their stake, seek the easier and faster path of helping to divide rather than to unite us, squeezing as many votes as they can from the warring constituencies.

There has never been so strong an incentive to divide our country as at this moment.

The recent threats of court action by the DA, Sakeliga and others against the Labour Department’s proposed new Employment Equity regulations may be a good example of this. For these organisations, a fight over what they call “racial quotas” is a perfect opportunity to convince some voters they will fight for their interests.

It’s also the perfect opportunity for the ANC in government to show the voters that it is fighting for their interests.

The result is that no one seeks common ground, and judges are asked to provide legal backing for incredibly contentious and divisive issues on the purely technical grounds of whether the law was followed.

Unfortunately, the outlook for our future spells more division.

This is likely to be a brutal winter.

Eskom has warned of Stage 8 load shedding every day for possibly two months. Already, there are signs of increased protests by communities angry at the lack of services they have to endure.

Eskom’s Stage 8 warning is a chilling prospect for SA’s economy

In KwaZulu-Natal, it’s understood that security guards around the IFP’s Newcastle mayor opened fire on protesters, wounding three people. In Mpumalanga’s Emalahleni last week, a 13-year-old boy was shot dead by police during a similar protest. 

Such incidents, and the corresponding violence, are likely to only get worse. For many people, the memories of so many people losing their lives and so many businesses looted during the 2021 riots in KZN and Gauteng are still fresh.

For decision-makers, trying to draw up coherent policy during Stage 8 load shedding may prove impossible. The higher the load shedding level, the more frustrated people are. As a result, the divisions deepen and the fight intensifies; the protests are more violent and the response to them is more brutal.

The longer this intense load shedding lasts, the higher food prices will go and the more tension will be added to an already inflamed situation.

To be clear, this is not a prediction of some kind of Armageddon in our near future.

Despite our deepening differences, most of us are still tied to the dependencies of the greater economy, and that may prevent a massive meltdown. 

But unless there is a deliberate and massive change within the ANC, or re-emerging signs from President Cyril Ramphosa of interest in leading the country again, the outlook for the next few months is profoundly gloomy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Surveys show that the chattering class wishes to portray deepening divisions. However the vast majority of law abiding South Africans are not for BEE and other racist legislation. They simply want the dignity of work and a function bureaucracy. Let’s rally around. “I am a South African”

  • Johan Buys says:

    disagree. “we” are not divided. The honest, decent, rational and non-corrupt are very much united against our corrupt and incompetent government and a small number of their hateful zealot supporters.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    Mr Grootes, your pleas fall on deaf ears. When you are up to your arse in crocodiles, you first need to drain the swamp. The ANC cannot, and will never be able to, dig our country out of this mess that they are single-handedly responsible for. As for the bleating sheep in the DA… we’ll, not much happening except some shouting at the edge of the mess. OUTA and similar organisations have had a greater impact.

  • Brian Doyle says:

    A very good article. Most South Africans want a change away from corruption, the ANC’s dodging the truth and a competent honest President and party. The divisions are mainly a result of the ANC only being there for the ANC and not the country which is causing most of the divisions in society

  • charlesbotha says:

    Surprisingly, you do not know the SA history very well, Stephen! Your statement that “the only movement in our history which has tried to represent people from all of our communities” is factually incorrect. The Liberal Party, under the partial leadership of author Alan Paton, represented all communities until the Nationalist government of the time put a stop to that in the late 1960s. The party chose to disband rather than expelling its black members.

  • David Walker says:

    Of course we are divided. There are those who support the ANC/ EFF incompetence and corruption and those who oppose them. That is not the issue. The issue is who will be in the majority come the elections next year.

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