NEWS & ANALYSIS

UKZN: ANC paralysed in the face of public violence

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on govt's inability to deal with the chaos on the university's campus

JAUNDICED EYE

When countries stumble towards collapse, there’s invariably speculation about what the tipping point will be and when it will happen.

In truth, there’s rarely a single event that can be foreseen and which, if not circumvented, will trigger the final implosion. Rather, there are a series of cumulatively critical moments that, unfortunately, are usually most clearly discernible in the cracked rearview mirror, only after the crash has occurred.

In South Africa, one of the most worrying things for the ordinary citizen is the to-the-bone erosion of law and order. Protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens is, after all, the primary duty of the nation-state. By that criterion, SA is in a perilous condition.

As far as white-collar crime goes, it can be seen in the looting of state assets to the tune, by government estimates, of R1trn (US$66bn) and the inability to bring corporate crooks to book More seriously, as regards criminal violence, it can be seen not only in some of the world’s worst murder, rape and assault statistics, but also in a sense of growing public anarchy. Law enforcement seems to be losing whatever grip it might once have had.

Public violence is approaching levels last seen in the political uprisings of the mid-1980s. At that time, it was brought under tenuous control by the National Party government declaring successive states of emergency and unleashing its own massive, retaliatory violence.

Nowadays, public “unrest” is mostly unpoliced by the SA Police Service and has become so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable. Messages on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups regarding missing pets and grousing over potholes are routinely interspersed with matter-of-fact warnings about stone-throwing mobs and burning trucks to be avoided when going shopping.

The national broadcaster has developed a format that is as mundane to locals as it must be scary to overseas visitors. After the news and the weather, the morning traffic report’s list of broken-down trucks and fender-bender frustrations includes, as routine, a long list of roads, intersections and highways to avoid because of violent protests and fiery barricades.

Almost any of these incidents, generally poorly reported in the media because there are so many of them, provides a microcosm of all that is failing in SA society. There’s a grievance — often real but blown up out of all proportion — combined with the assumption by the aggrieved that any means of obtaining redress is justifiable and that they will not suffer any serious consequences for criminal acts. Indeed, their behaviour, however reprehensible, will most likely be met with capitulation, reward and absolution. 

Take the ongoing student riots at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where an elderly professor was hospitalised this week after being attacked with a brick, all because he dared defy the students’ national shutdown by going to his office. IOL quotes a UKZN staff member to tellingly reflect the warped values of our society’s supposed leaders: “Management said the professor was injured but his car was okay.”

The students, angry at the universities’ insistence that they settle at least 15% of any outstanding fees before registering this year, have been running amuck for weeks. Students reluctant to join the protests have been assaulted, including at least one stabbing. No lectures are being held.

So far, this year, the UKZN students, numbering about 1,000 out of an enrolment of close on 50,000, have burnt down the HIV-clinic, a residence, and two campus security offices. They failed in their attempts to burn down the gym, unlike a few years ago when they torched the Howard College Law Library and destroyed a priceless collection of historical books. 

The SAPS’ nationwide strategy seems to be one of containment, doing no more than trying to prevent the violence from spreading. As SAPS put it, the police will monitor protests and “take appropriate action when protestors commit a crime”.

But at the universities, arrests have been few and far between. When they have occurred, it seems they have mostly been made by varsity security. As it has done for decades with householders and businesses, SAPS response has not been to do its job but instead to shift the responsibility for law enforcement to the victim — in this case, taxpayer-funded institutions — “imploring” them, according to media reports, to beef up their security.

But one can’t blame the SAPS entirely. When arrests are made by them, the offenders are often not prosecuted and the courts tend to be lenient in sentencing.

It must be wearisome for the cops to see their best efforts negated by a supine and endlessly accommodating political establishment. Fees Must Fall thug, Kanya Cekeshe, who was sentenced to eight years jail for public violence — trying to set a van full of cops alight — of which three years were suspended, spent less than two in prison. He was released following a campaign supported by the likes of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which demanded clemency for the “political prisoner”.

It is not coincidence, given their pseudo-military affectations, that at many incidents of public disorder can be spotted the red berets of the Economic Freedom Fighters. It’s not clear whether they are there merely as enthusiastic participants in existing chaos or orchestrating it. Or both.

What is clear, however, is that the African National Congress government is incapable of acting forcefully against any public violence that has attached to it the vaguest connotation of leftist political mobilisation. To do so, it fears, would be to strengthen the EFF and to weaken its credibility and support among an increasingly militant black youth.

Unfortunately, the government is absolutely right. And, even more unfortunately, that means we are sliding towards one of the most obvious characteristics of a failed state — widespread and uncontrollable mob violence, fomented by sinister populist forces.