The riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng have shown just how much we need to rebuild South Africa into something better for all, not just the 1%. Clean-up efforts have demonstrated that a more equitable and multiracial future is possible, but that we have to create it ourselves.
You cannot build a house on a shaky foundation, and South Africa has insisted on building a colourful house on a broken foundation. Until we address the deeply rooted, structural issues, we will never be a rainbow, only a grey scale. Our educational and economic systems stem from the legacy of racism and how it disproportionately affects the black lower class. This creates a ticking time bomb for future unrest. The riots are a warning shot demanding us to dismantle and reconstruct South Africa to make it a more equitable country for everyone.
The riots may have begun with anger at former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration, but they transformed into a demonstration of discontent from KZN and Gauteng’s lower-class communities in reaction to the past two years’ strict Covid-19 measures and the resultant job losses.
That looters went after businesses, not residences, indicates the economic poverty these communities experience. They are tired of losing wages, of being unable to afford basic necessities like food, and of dealing with a government that is apathetic to their problems. Additionally, these communities have witnessed high hospitalisation and death rates that have created emotional distress. The tipping point has been the government’s missing R500-billion in Covid relief, a national bone of contention.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had the ability to mitigate most of the provinces’ loss of life by having an adequate plan from the beginning. Throughout the week preceding the major looting and riots, KZN residents already knew what was going to happen. Roadblocks on the N3 and small-scale looting in KwaMashu were just two incidents that began on Friday, July 9 and carried into Sunday. These protests were aimed at Zuma’s imprisonment, small but still centred on the state of the economy.
If Zuma’s arrest was the spark, Ramaphosa’s speech on 11 July blew it into a full-blown flame. Instead of addressing the growing protests, perhaps by assuring the country of a fair trial and validating how people felt, he primarily talked about Covid-19 and only in the final minutes delivered divisive words about ethnic mobility. He claimed the protesters, and by extension their supporters, were criminals led by “ethnic mobilisation”, insults that fuelled the flames and spurred people to action.
In his riot-specific speech the following day, Ramaphosa had another opportunity to take accountability. Instead, he spent most of his address congratulating the SAPS on their hard work and explaining how he would send in the SANDF to affected areas. In short, he looked at the surface of the problem, using words such as “protection of property” instead of protection of lives, addressing businesses instead of hungry people.
In most communities, his words came across as talking to the top 1% that run the economy, not the majority of South Africans. Rather than making amends, his words led to even more anger and rioting. And some of what he said only came to pass quite late, as seen in Durban when the SANDF entered the city three days after the president’s Monday announcement.
Even now, there remains no sense of accountability. On 16 July, Ramaphosa stated that he was wrong about ethnic mobility, yet only because he had been called “leli Venda leli,” which directly translates to, “this Venda person,” referring to the tribe of which Ramaphosa is a part. He took this as a tribal insult. That false, ego-driven, and reckless claim led to further loss of life. We wonder if we can afford this fragility from our president and the cost it takes on our nation.
So, where do we go from here? For many people, returning to “normal” means resuming daily activities like going out to eat or attending concerts and football games. But for so many others, the “normal” was never good enough. Sometimes it was even life-threatening. As the recent riots have demonstrated, the steps the government has taken to prevent Covid-19 only exacerbated social and cultural inequalities.
The riots have exposed just how economically and medically fragile life is for almost 50% of South Africans, with an even higher rate for children. With those rates, coupled with unemployment at an all-time high, it’s small wonder that mass looting happened. This pandemic has shown us just how unprepared and out of touch the government is, both with the country and with itself. A government should stand united and give us direction, but the past few days have shown us how divided the ANC truly is and why that division is catastrophic for the average South African.
Rebuilding ultimately means working together to create a better nation that emerges from Covid-19 as a more united and equitable society. Race already economically divided South Africa prior to Covid-19. In 2019, the black population earned about 15% of what the white population did, while the coloured population only earned about 25% and the Asian and Indian communities a little over 50% of what white people made. This gap has grown since Covid lockdowns began in 2020.
When people hear the word “redistribution”, they think of the country’s physical landscape. But redistribution is, more importantly, about creating a more equitable playing field for everyone involved. To do this, let’s change the narrative around black professionals and communities by supporting them instead of tearing them down. Build and design schools that give all learners an equal education to succeed in the economy and society. Fund township startups that will keep the money circulating in and thus strengthening the community. Incentivise banks to create opportunities with fair lending policies, allowing lower-class black people to access finance in the same way more privileged communities do.
The political sphere, too, requires rebuilding, especially for the youth. Although it started with good intentions, the ANC has become a party of infighting. As the African proverb says: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” These fights are taking place between ANC’s older leaders, leading to the exclusion of young voices and thus hurting the country. The average age of current parliamentarians is 50, while the Cabinet’s average is 57. If we are to move this country forward economically and socially, young people need more support, more funding, and more encouragement to get involved in politics.
In between politics and economics, we need to have a continuous conversation on race. We have to address the issues of racism not by painting rainbows, but by engaging in civil discourse. South Africa was literally designed to be segregated. It’s not our fault that we’re born into these homogenous groups; it is if we keep them that way. To break down these walls, we must start talking to one another. We must pass down and validate these issues among one another through cross-cultural conversation. By learning of other people’s experiences and sufferings, we can begin to be anti-racist together and start being the change South Africa needs.
There are already movements under way to address these issues and stoke cross-cultural conversation. In Durban alone, several movements exist. The Anti-Racist Hotdog brings people together over food and drink to chat about their experiences. Restored Durban works to clean up the city and provide food to the hungry. Finally, the Ubuntu Design Group uses architecture as a vehicle to design and build a more equitable Durban for all, starting with redeveloping the dilapidated point wharfside area for young professionals. DM