South Africans have been contending with unbelievable levels of lawlessness, looting and violence on both public and private property. Anxiety, uncertainty and fear continue to ripple across the country far beyond the disastrous events that have consumed parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
We struggle with what is unfolding not because it seems impossible, but because our worst fears are being screened on a constant loop. How do we reconcile what we see taking place in Alexandra, Meadowlands, Daveyton, Heidelberg and elsewhere in the country?
Questions around who we are, and how this can be happening, are filling the minds of South Africans. But the approach adopted by our government is not providing the reassurance that all who live in South Africa are looking for.
The experience of living through the dying days of apartheid provides context for how I engage with our constitutional democracy and how I seek to participate in our country. This context remembers segregation and degradation of black people, exclusion from amenities, facilities and educational opportunities, and the violence that the illegitimate regime was designed to deliver each day.
South Africa’s past is one of exclusion, deprivation, violence, systemised racism and abuse, corruption and the exercise of public power intended to humiliate, dehumanise and constrain the majority of South Africans.
The lived experience of the vast majority continues to be shaped by an exclusionary system that has been far too slow to change. Hampered by corruption, malfeasance and incompetence, our governments since 1994 have moved us towards a transformative South Africa — but have fallen short of the aspirations and hopes of millions.
Unfortunately, the systemic and structural realities of South Africa are underpinned by the fact that it is a country of immense inequity and exclusion. The World Bank pegs the Gini coefficient at 0.63. However, recent research published by the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and the World Inequality Lab has evolved our understanding beyond the narrow lens of income to appreciate the scope of wealth inequality in South Africa. This research provides a staggering reflection on what South Africa is:
“The top 10% own 86% of aggregate wealth and the top 0.1% close to one third. The top 0.01% of the distribution (3,500 individuals) concentrate 15% of household net worth, more than the bottom 90% as a whole. Such high levels of inequality can be accounted for in all forms of assets at the top end, including housing, pension funds and other financial assets.”
The undeniable truth is that the only route to wealth generation in this country is through access to decent and sustainable employment opportunities — unless one is born into networks and systems that have enabled access through inheritance.
Stats SA’s quarterly labour force survey reflects starkly that the triple threats of inequality, poverty and unemployment have continued to worsen. By the end of 2020, the official unemployment rate had climbed to 32.5%, while the expanded definition of unemployment rose to an unprecedented 42.6%.
The Stats SA 2021 report further highlights the dimension of gender in that women are affected negatively both in the formal and informal economy. Young people, as new entrants into the labour force, are similarly affected where “youth aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years recorded the highest unemployment rates of 63.2% and 41.2% respectively. Approximately 3.1 million (29.8%) out of 10.3 million young people aged 15-24 years were not in employment, education or training.”
South Africa’s exclusionary system may seem unconnected to the ongoing lawlessness, looting, public violence and unrest across the country, but it is important to understand the context in which millions continue to live and in many respects are trapped. Our government has failed to properly serve the needs of its people, and the lawlessness that has been spurred by political expediency, rejection of the rule of law and violence has not been accidental — rather, it has been orchestrated.
The impetus has spilt over into communities that have been brutalised by poverty, inequality and unemployment, and in recent times have been further degraded by the worsening socioeconomic circumstances caused by Covid-19, coupled with a lost decade of governance and billions stolen from the people of this country.
What South Africans are witnessing is not foreign to who we are. It is part of who we are, just as much as the stories of Fatima Meer, Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Walter Sisulu are part of the South African experience.
However, it can be rejected and excised from who we are today.
Martin Luther King Jr in 1967 had this to say: “… the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.”
The protests that have consumed our country may have originated in political expediency that sought to avoid responsibility and truthfulness. Billions were stolen from the people of this country, enabled by the State Capture project, and South Africans are still waiting for those responsible to be held accountable. In these troubled times, we must take heed of the warnings the stalwarts of our democracy built into our constitutional democracy.
In the coming hours and days, South Africans will need to see effective coordination between safety, security and intelligence role players, law enforcement officials, the police and the South African National Defence Force in responding to those who have decided to act violently, illegally and with menace.
President Ramaphosa and his government will need to act with urgency and reflect leadership on the ground to steady the mood of the country.
The opportunists are not simply at the gate — they have been released across the country with the intention of degrading even further the aspirations and hopes of the millions of South Africans who continue to struggle each day to simply survive and endure. We owe them far more, and Ramaphosa will need to move with urgency and visible leadership.
We must remember this is not just the story of black South Africans or poor South Africans or South Africans who are confined to the outskirts of our cities and society. This is the story of South Africa, and if we are able to accept that, then we may begin to collectively take responsibility for how much has gone wrong and how often those who suffer the worst are black, women and poor.
We cannot other this crisis. Instead, we will collectively need to reflect deeply on what the South African condition is, and how we can remedy all that ails our country as it continues to exclude and trap millions in a vicious and violent outcome. DM