A Ticking Time Bomb
The recent unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that led to massive destruction of property and the loss of many lives is a classic example of a ticking time bomb. Twenty-seven years into democracy, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. Widespread unemployment and poverty have resulted in anger and frustration, with sporadic unrest throughout the country. The government has been very lethargic in its response, often deploying military and law enforcement agents to temporarily quell the tension, while making empty promises to address the underlying issues.
This situation has persisted for far too long and has now come back to bite us. In response to the recent widespread destruction, government’s modus operandi remains the same, with all sorts of conspiracy theories as to why people are behaving in this manner, deliberately avoiding dealing with the elephant in the room. This myopic attitude is not in tune with the reality on the ground. It reinforces the impression that leaders are there for themselves and that they care very little about the plight of their constituencies.
I would argue that our government is entirely responsible for what we saw unfolding in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. While space does not allow an exhaustive analysis of the reasons for the quagmire the country finds itself in, some of the central issues are addressed.
Economic inequality is at the centre of this unrest. It is not surprising that young people aged 18-35 have been the main participants. Our youth languish in abject poverty due to unemployment, unemployability, a lack of business opportunities, the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and poor delivery of health, social and other basic services. These are the pressing issues confronting South African communities on a daily basis which the government has done little to address.
Over the past 10 years, South Africa has descended into political bickering, first within the ruling party (the ANC) and then amongst opposition parties. This has crippled constructive and meaningful debate within these parties and rendered parliament virtually ineffective. Grandee politics and endless squabbles have resulted in the abandonment of civic duty by those we, the people, elected to lead us to a brighter future. The ANC is politically and administratively fractured. While these divisions are historical, they have recently been exacerbated by the rift between those who support suspended Secretory-General Ace Magashule and those that align with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s efforts to root out corruption within the ruling party. These divisions have permeated all sectors of society and the electorate is utterly polarised. This is a stark contrast to what the world witnessed during Mandela’s time; the noble ideals of a rainbow nation have slowly crumbled.
South Africa has witnessed an unprecedented wave of student and community protests in the past 10 years. For the most part, government, and political and other analysts have misdiagnosed the problem. Such unrest is an indication that something is fundamentally wrong in our country. Inequality has deepened to the point where those affected have become so despondent that their moral compass is shaken; they feel that they have been deliberately ignored. Thus, people on the ground have resorted to violence, destruction of property and vandalism.
Recently, South Africans were astounded when students resorted to similar tactics. They were labelled as hooligans and criminals that needed to be locked up. We forget that these young people are part of a wounded society.
The government’s ill-preparedness and lack of accountability have become the norm. Whenever the country faces challenges, the government’s response is disorganised and disjointed. The recent unrest is a case in point. While the President initially blamed “ethnic mobilisation”, he later maintained that it was a “failed insurrection”. Meanwhile, Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Nqakula refuted the President’s statement. These contradictory responses indicate that they were caught off guard, and looked for excuses in lieu of taking full responsibility. This has been the attitude of the government throughout and it has led to where we are today.
In short, I would argue that the pandemonium into which the country was recently plunged has been in long coming. Our leaders have abdicated their civic duty in their quest to enrich themselves and their families at the expense of the masses. Excluded from the mainstream economy, unheard and frustrated, the masses resort to violence and anarchy. Until such time as our leaders in government and all other sectors embrace the principles of caring, transparency, and accountability, such unrest will continue.
Mr Khumbulani Mngadi is a Projects Coordinator for the Language Planning and Development Office (ULPDO) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.