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Deep discontent: Fasten your seatbelts on the road to South Africa’s potential collapse


Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

Just how far gone is South Africa? There isn’t one canary in the coal mine, but many, and they’re signalling to us in a cacophony of voices. That is perhaps the most telling indicator that the complexity of South Africa’s current woes may indeed lead down the road to collapse.

As 2022 kicks off in South Africa, one would be mistaken for thinking that things are proceeding as normally as can be and were it not for the pandemic we would simply be entering yet another year of the usual. There is little sense, for example, that the impact of the unrest that spread like wildfire through KwaZulu-Natal during the week of 12 July 2021 is still reverberating six months later. It’s as though it has quickly become a thing of the past, as most traumas do.

This is not new in South African history. Historically, we’ve moved on quickly from our national traumas, preferring to believe that the foundations of our society remain in place and that it will prevail even though it will be periodically tested.

Yet, history shows us that what we consider to be permanent as human societies is always illusory. Things can appear stable, relatively predictable and dependable for a long time, and then suddenly transition to a new reality. Of course, retrospective – often historical – analyses tend to explain these sudden, dramatic transitions as inevitable outcomes of history, but in the times that these sea changes occur, very few people within those societies are able to accurately predict them. Living in the reality of a society is an exercise in complexity. It is difficult to predict what dramatic changes may lie ahead for a society because society is a multidimensional, relational, dynamic phenomenon that defies attempts to predict how it may unravel.

Notwithstanding, it would be irresponsible not to give adequate attention to some of the developments that have unfolded in recent times, with a particular eye on what destabilising movements prevail in the sociopolitical landscape of South Africa.

Unemployment and inequality deepened in 2021 as the sustained effects of the pandemic took their toll. Repeated lockdowns and associated restrictions hit some industries hard and jobs were shed as a result. Whatever the debates are about what may have been necessary, and what may not have been, public confidence in government’s handling of the pandemic suffered and industries and opposition parties have contested decision-making on lockdown restrictions vociferously.

Moreover, the unholy alliances between the government, state and corporate and criminal interests that brought the project of State Capture to bear on our key state and state-owned institutions have not been successfully dismantled. Every indication is that they have dug their heels in and are making strong efforts to secure political power to evade accountability in the courts. Corruption in the roll-out of life-saving personal protective equipment, for example, is a clear indicator that more of the same continues in respect of corruption, despite ongoing efforts to bring corruption levels down. Ongoing political assassinations are also a worrying indicator that the nexus between government, state, corporate and criminal interests have intensified.

Key Chapter 9 institutions appear to be unable to effectively and competently fulfill their mandates, despite changes in leadership in the ruling party that signalled a pushback against the project of State Capture that unfolded under the previous leadership, as well as changes in leadership in these institutions themselves. The poor track record of the embattled Office of the Public Protector is a case in point; a key institution in the fight against corruption has repeatedly received scathing judgments from the courts.

Corruption, nepotism and cronyism continue to plague government and the state, rendering them ineffective. The public sector in general is still reeling from the eroding effects of State Capture, and delivery on pretty much every public good has suffered. This includes service provision in energy, water, transport, education and healthcare, to name but a few key sectors. Occupying public office, whether in local, provincial or national government – or in the state itself – has become a job-holding exercise. Acting in the public good appears to be a long afterthought to many who occupy positions of power in political office and the state. For the most part, it appears that aspirations to be in these positions are fuelled by the desire to use these positions of power to advance one’s personal interests and those of one’s network.

Over the years we’ve witnessed a series of attacks on the judiciary, many of which have backfired, and it appears that the judiciary has managed to retain its independence from the vagaries of the political realm. Nonetheless, repeated attacks on officials from the judiciary who are conducting investigations into corruption and maladministration continue unabated. Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who heads the Zondo Commission – which has been meticulously collecting evidence on State Capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector – is a case in point. The very president who appointed the commission in 2018 has refused to appear before it – claiming that Zondo is biased against him – and was sentenced to 15 months in prison by the Constitutional Court as a result.

The press, embattled by reduced funding streams and changes in their business models that prioritise advertising revenue, has been reduced to a shadow of what is required of a press that can play a key role in safeguarding democracy and the public interest. Investigative journalism has been significantly defunded and newsrooms struggle to keep pace with the need to investigate wrongdoing. Journalists are often singled out and targeted, harassed, intimidated and threatened, often on social media where the perpetrators can escape accountability.

The idea that our individual safety and security is bound to that of others has essentially become a meaningless rhetorical device, invoked nostalgically (usually under the banner of ubuntu) rather than lived out meaningfully in communities and society at large.

More worrying is that some large news outlets have displayed a significant lack of journalistic ethics and principles, becoming embroiled in factional battles between politicians in the governing party and effectively serving as propaganda machines designed to muddy the waters of public debate with disinformation and outright lies. This turn towards a Fox News-styled press is extremely worrying, given the social and political division that Fox News has sown in the US political sphere in service of elite interests, all the while masquerading as acting in the interests of the embattled, ordinary citizen.

What should be of deep concern to every South African are the reports of sabotage on key infrastructures and their impacts on the economy and economic confidence in South Africa. Power supply, railway lines, ports, blockages of national roads along key freight routes as well as cyberattacks on key infrastructures and institutions have become regular occurrences in the wake of the KZN unrest, indicating that some level of coordination may underpin these efforts. It may well be that a low-level campaign is being mounted to destabilise the country; one that is not dissimilar to plans that Umkhonto weSizwe had drawn up during the armed struggle against apartheid.

While smaller parties were the greatest winners in the local government elections of 2021, there has been a marked deterioration in the quality of opposition party politics by all and sundry in the opposition. Indeed, the mobilisation of populist invective, xenophobia, polarising and divisive racialised, ethnicist and even separatist politics has seen opposition politics turn into a dangerous circus. Sensationalism and performative political posturing – designed to capture the public imagination rather than stimulate active citizen engagement in the political realm – is increasingly trumping sober political debate that seeks to find solutions to the problems we face as a country.

For the first time in the history of democratic South Africa, opposition parties actively sought to undermine the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), an institution that is key to producing a democracy that we can all believe in. This unprecedented turn in opposition politics should provoke deep concern and pause for thought. While no institution in South Africa is above reproach, to actively undermine the IEC with half-truths and by playing on insecurities of the public is reprehensible, not least because without the IEC we run the risk of severely compromising our democracy.

The severely low voter turnout – notwithstanding that the election was held during a global pandemic – is an indicator of the public’s distrust in key institutions as well as the democratic process itself. The low voter turnout was a signal to all and sundry in South African politics – governing party and opposition – that they are failing its citizenry. What happens when the majority of a citizenry begin to believe that their hard-won democratic order is of no use to them? Drawing on similar currents across the world, what has ensued is a disengagement with establishment politics that occupies the middle ground in favour of populist strongman-styled leaders who engage in scapegoating and blaming, creating in-groups and out-groups, further polarising already precarious sociopolitical orders.

At the individual level, opportunism, materialism and general distrust in the social and political order we live in have prompted a retreat into the private realm that began long before the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a sense that as a society we are not bound to each other by any meaningful social contract, that it has literally become a country in which each person fends for themself, and if it means trampling over others to secure one’s own safety and security then so be it.

The idea that our individual safety and security is bound to that of others has essentially become a meaningless rhetorical device, invoked nostalgically (usually under the banner of ubuntu) rather than lived out meaningfully in communities and society at large. This retreat into the preservation of individual interests above that of community and society is of great concern, as it means that South Africans aren’t likely to be able to mobilise the kind of unified, collective action that they did against apartheid in service of protecting its democracy and democratic freedoms.

These destabilising movements should be of great concern to all South Africans in 2022, not least because this year is when the ANC’s elective conference will be held. Notwithstanding, even if we ignore the elective conference, what is deeply worrying about these movements is that there is no telling how they might combine to bring about a collapse in South African society and its political and economic order.

There isn’t one canary in the coal mine, so to speak, but many, and they’re signalling to us in a cacophony of voices. It’s difficult to know exactly where to concentrate efforts to prevent it all from unravelling uncontrollably, and that is perhaps the most telling indicator that the complexity of South Africa’s current woes may indeed lead down the road to collapse.

Lest we forget, the events of the week of 12 July 2021 in KZN were a powerful expression of the deep discontent with the status quo in South Africa, a discontent that can easily be manipulated to wreak greater havoc and chaos on South African society and the economy. As our challenges mount and our politics continue to fail us, it is wholly conceivable that what we’ve come to regard as permanent and foundational may ultimately collapse under the myriad erosions it has suffered over the past decade of our nascent democracy.

One thing is sure, it will not be the first time that a liberated nation has suffered this fate under its liberators.

The only way forward is to acknowledge that cosmetic change and the status quo isn’t going to cut it. We need to overcome our collective amnesia and come to terms with the trauma that prevails in our society, and put in the work to bring about substantial, systemic change. DM


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