The idea of a country is not the same as the lived experience of that country and its people. South Africa and its government have been emptied out — intentionally hollowed out through malfeasance, looting, wasteful expenditure, inexperienced leaders, flight of skills and the insurrectionist agenda that was housed in the presidency of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma and the lost decade that was enabled by the governing party.
The events of last week emphasise the extent of the hollowing out of our state capacity. Our government could not protect the people of this country when an insurrectionist agenda was planned and executed. The costs of those events have already been reduced to numbers — close to R50-billion lost to the South African economy, more than 200 shopping centres looted, about 3,000 shops looted, with more than 40,000 businesses affected, 50,000 informal traders at risk and 150,000 jobs at risk. At least 215 people have been killed as a result of the insurrectionist events of the past week, with more than 3,400 arrested.
South Africa has experienced its own dose of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the true cost of the past week is the further disillusionment, impoverishment and brutality that continues to be meted out to ordinary South Africans and residents. The current discord between Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo and Minister of Police Bheki Cele highlights how dysfunctional our government has become.
Meanwhile, the ongoing discord in Cabinet continues with Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula and her deputy, Thabang Samson Phathakge Makwetla, who has questioned her recent statements, all while Mapisa-Nqakula has walked back her earlier comments that contradicted President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement calling the events of the past week a failed insurrection. These ministers and Ramaphosa’s administration will need to account for these failures, particularly the scale of the intelligence failures that should have effectively managed the destruction and violence.
The hollowing out may have begun with urgency and vigour through the State Capture project across our country. A hollowing out that has caused untold damage to the institutional strength across towns, cities, provinces and indeed the national executive and its departments. The true cost has enabled the entrenchment of monopolistic tendencies across our economy, and the inability to boldly shift our public policy positions to confront the triple threat of structural unemployment, entrenched poverty and worsening inequality.
The lived experiences of the vast majority of South Africans should bother our elected representatives and public servants into action, but instead, we are plagued by their disdain for our issues. We are plagued by the ineptitude, the greed, self-interest and lack of interest in serving the people of this country and enabling the transformative agenda of South Africa’s Constitution.
Framing our issues and problems will be crucial in determining our collective future. The shaping cannot be framed on an idealistic outlook or scenario planning that assumes that South Africa has been shaped by exceptionalism in the form of the Rainbow Nation. Instead, we need to collectively look hard at the country that so many call home.
We must ensure that our response is not another mismatched plastering over what is wrong with our country. We must begin to build coalitions that can fulfil the mission that the people of this country have willingly accepted in the face of a failing and uncaring government. Importantly, South Africans, after this past week, can no longer leave the business of politics to the fragmented and disingenuous cohort littered across the country. We will need to actively mobilise, campaign and vote for those willing and committed to serving the people and use our Constitution as the critical tool in reshaping this unequal society.
Our country may have survived a disastrous week, overcome the failed insurrection and the hard truth that has been revealed — the simple truth that our government is incapable of simply responding to the crisis and the hunger, need and desperation of the South African people.
In this cavernous vacuum, civil society, journalists, non-profit organisations and well-intentioned citizens and residents have sought to protect the country. These are the people who protected the country when our government was unable and unwilling. These are the very same people who have revealed the truth, have fed those who have been hungry, have protected those from an abusive system, have battled against patriarchy and misogyny while the government ignored their plight.
Ramaphosa has highlighted the need for us to build compacts across multiple sectors. Compacting that is under way to develop the appropriate relief as a result of the failed insurrection. The lesson seems to not have been wholeheartedly adopted by this government or accelerated to serve the people of this country.
The socioeconomic realities and lived experience of South Africans should give all of us pause.
Poverty in many quarters has been criminalised — we are comfortable using improvement districts to harass and abuse and relocate people to the outskirts of our cities and towns so that we are not burdened with the sight of poverty. Worse still, we have been comfortable using the police and South African National Defence Force to disperse those who are hungry. The solidarity that Ramaphosa reflected this past Sunday may ring hollow for the millions who continue to be weighed down by their lived and very dire experience.
The rippling of inequity and violence continues to plague our communities and people. The community and people of Cape Town continue to be left hanging with the suspension of public transport services due to ongoing violence in the metro. Our collapsed rail system across the country is another reminder of how the hollowing out continues to inhibit progress and destroy the dreams and hopes of ordinary South Africans and residents.
This is not the country we should be proud of. This is not the freedom that millions of people fought for and died for. These should not be the only options implemented by our government, but rather the systemic and structural issues must be confronted and fixed. The country continues to be at risk from those who have robbed South Africans and corrupted the state for their own self-interest, and from the inability of the government to meaningfully implement a developmental agenda that seeks to confront unemployment, inequality, poverty and spatial inequity.
South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, in a speech addressing the AIDS pandemic in 2005, asked: “When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis, or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?” The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and the consequences of this global pandemic continue to puncture the soul of South Africa, causing immense havoc and socioeconomic violence against an already battered and compromised people.
We cannot simply sit by and pretend that a “business-as-usual” approach will be enough. We must heed Mandela’s urging and begin to boldly embrace our own agency melded with courage and the will to finally act. This is the question and issue we should all be wrestling with, and importantly we must weave our social and community compacting towards reclaiming public power in the interest of the people and to finally fulfil the transformative agenda of the Constitution. DM