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Change or collapse: Violence reveals the weak foundations of the South African state


Hayden Weaver is a student in the Master’s programme of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town where he has submitted a dissertation on the philosophy of violence.

The violence gripping South Africa reveals that we have not left our colonial past behind. We are a transcolonial state, as described by Frantz Fanon, having failed to transform the lived reality of poverty, unemployment and a lack of dignity for the majority of our people.

Violence and looting have escalated in many parts of South Africa in recent days — a perceived continuation of the #freeJacobZuma protests that began on the weekend of 11 July 2021. The looting of major grocery stores, liquor stores and home appliance stores has created devastating scenes. We have watched the police stand on the sidelines observing the mayhem as they are stretched too thin to effectively end it.

South Africa is burning, but is this really about the infamous former president? What are the true drivers of this violence?

South Africa is a state that is suspended between the past and the present, between apartheid and democracy, between colonialism and postcolonialism, a state still in transition. 

The transcolonial state of South Africa is revealed through the acts of violence that are erupting across the country. The violence illuminates the gulf between the constitutionally promised freedoms, rights and laws of democracy, and the lived reality of the people. Ultimately, this violence unveils the truth of the nation.

The lived reality of the majority of South Africans is one that is stripped of dignity and filled with poverty. This makes the freedoms, rights and laws completely foreign to many. The people of South Africa were promised change when the apartheid government was overthrown. But it has been more than 20 years and the reality of many South Africans is just as it was during apartheid. Ultimately, it is this that has led to the eruption of violence. It is given justification by the #freeJacobZuma movement. But it is clearly not about the former president. Rather, this is the overflowing of anger by citizens of South Africa.

The South African government has fallen into a predictable scenario. Frantz Fanon suggested that one of the major struggles to lift a country from a colonial state would occur after the initial overthrow of a former white government. This would occur as what Fanon termed the “national bourgeoisie” replaced the colonisers. 

In Fanon’s words in The Wretched of the Earth, “the national bourgeoisie proves incapable of achieving simple national unity and incapable of building the nation on a solid, constructive foundation”. This seems to fit the South African situation perfectly, as problems in post-apartheid South Africa have continued to grow, visible in our rampant unemployment, devastating poverty and lack of dignity that many face on a daily basis.

Furthermore, South Africa’s government has mirrored Fanon’s words as he suggests that the national bourgeoisie “are able to cash in on all sides and prove to be brilliant opportunists. Favours abound, corruption triumphs and morals decline. Today the vultures are too numerous and too greedy”. 

As things stand, South Africa is a skeleton of the state it had the potential to be. The failures of the ANC government have led to the violent situation we have now. The irony here is that the imprisonment of one of the true vultures of this period has been used to justify acts of violence and looting.

Fanon suggests that “the party, which has become a genuine instrument of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, reinforces the State apparatus and determines the containment and immobilisation of the people”. The violence can be seen as a form of remobilisation of South Africans as well as the unveiling of utter desperation among the citizens. 

Among the opportunistic looting of a wide range of businesses, the looting of grocery stores is a clear example of the desperate state of many, as looters use the chaos to gain a meal. The extent of the upheavals of the past few days unveils the foundations of a nation that remains engulfed in its colonial past.

This violence is by no means justifiable. However, it does illuminate the shattered foundations of the South African nation-state. This is not about former president Zuma — it is a symptom of much greater problems within our country. It is now a battle between state power in the form of police and military, and the anger of many South African citizens.

One thing remains clear. Something must change, or things truly will fall apart. DM


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