Impunity edging towards anarchy

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the trend towards violent and un-policed protest and strike action


After three months of dithering, much “social compacting”, consultation with the party’s tripartite allies and — who knows? — perhaps the local Russian ambassador, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday reshuffled his Cabinet. And what a damp squib that turned out to be.

Despite the addition of two new ministries, including a Minister of Electricity who appropriately has both technocratic and corruption credentials, it remains embarrassingly short of talent and ability. It’s a Cabinet so lacking in basic competencies that it would struggle to oversee the governance of a peaceful democracy that’s bounding ahead economically. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the present South African reality. Instead, this hopeless lot will have to concentrate their meagre skills on steering a tired, divided and violent nation that is under intense economic and social pressure, through to next year’s general election with the minimum of drama or upset. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In this regard, the retention of Police Minister Bheki Cele is arguably the biggest mistake that Ramaphosa has made. The five years that Cele has been in charge of the law enforcement portfolio have been disastrous. Violent crime is soaring and, most worrying of all, the government’s extreme reluctance to deploy the police against mob violence, has encouraged a spirit of lawless impunity that is edging towards anarchy.

In July 2021, the SA Police Service (SAPS) sat on its hands for four days — not a teargas canister fired — while looters ran riot. At least 360 people were killed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, with economic damage exceeding R70 billion and 2 million lost jobs, according to government testimony before the Human Rights Commission. 

This was a seminal moment. In the face of looting and arson, the Ramaphosa government blinked and it’s been fluttering its eyelids non-stop ever since. 

The SAPS has virtually withdrawn from the fray. There are few or no consequences to mob violence and militant students, unionists and Economic Freedom Fighters have taken note. 

The past week has seen sickening levels of union violence on the part of nurses and health workers. The police have been all but invisible. The only security offered, and scant at that, has come from private contractors.

In KwaZulu-Natal, striking nurses — one wielding a panga — attacked an ambulance to prevent it from entering Stanger Hospital. They tried to wrench out of the vehicle a child on advanced life support and assaulted a paramedic who intervened. 

In the Eastern Cape, 23 women had to be snuck out to private hospitals for emergency Caesareans, while the families of hungry patients had to sneak in with food. Singing, dancing, tyre-burning health union workers, demanding a 10% pay rise and a lavish increase in benefits, told the Herald that they did not care if patients died.

In Gauteng and the Free State, at all the public hospitals, surgeries have been cancelled, patients discharged wherever possible, and ambulances prevented from operating. Entrances have been blockaded and anyone trying to enter or leave has to run the gauntlet of jeering, jostling, stone-throwing and sjambokking mobs.

So assured are these thugs that there will be no repercussions, neither from law enforcement nor from their professional oversight bodies, that they make no attempt to hide their faces. Come and get me, is the challenge, and they know that the ANC government doesn’t dare.

Those nurses, doctors and support staff who have tried to keep working have been threatened, abused, and often forcibly prevented from doing so. One doctor told Daily Maverick, which has excelled in its coverage, that those wanting to work are being threatened with “necklacing” and that “these are threats by people they know, who live with them in the township. Most of the health workers who have continued working, live in the city,” she said. 

The Western Cape provincial secretary of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), Baxolise Mali, was similarly unapologetic. He told his members: “The employer says people are dying. It is not our responsibility to keep people’s lives.”

The national Department of Health has described some of the the actions of the strikers as “tantamount to attempted murder”. The KZN Health MEC said those blockading access had “blood on their hands”. Yet despite the violence, and despite this having been ruled an illegal strike, the SAPS has mostly avoided getting involved, except for two reported interventions, in Buffalo City and Mthatha, to briefly prevent the barricading of hospital entrances.

Cele, who normally loves visiting bloody crime scenes with his entourage, to vow before the assembled television cameras swift justice that never materialises, has been noticeably absent during this chaos. Public violence involving what the ANC calls “our people” — a term initially meaning black South Africans but increasingly used specifically for those belonging to or supporting the tripartite alliance — is a political hot potato best ignored.

The Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, freshly confirmed in his post by Ramaphosa, was nowhere to be seen, eventually surfacing on Thursday to visit Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg.  He said at least four people, presumably patients, had died during the protests and begged the SAPS to enforce court orders and maintain order at health facilities.

As always, the ANC and its alliance partners, union federation Cosatu and the SA Communist Party, will swear — wink, wink, say no more — that they abhor violence. So, too, do the healthcare and nursing unions involved.

So, too, do the few hundred Wits students who last week trashed the campus, caused chaos in the city, and then marched to the home of the university’s vice-chancellor to terrify his family and young children. They denied reports that they had threatened to torch the house and solemnly explained that all they wanted was to “sleep peacefully” outside his front door to encourage him to apply his mind to their demands. 

So, too, the EFF “soldiers” who display photographs on social media of themselves as “combat ready”. The EFF this week defended its Mpumalanga leader and member of the provincial legislature, who posed with a semi-automatic rifle under the caption: “By all means necessary or possible, we are ready.” 

This should not be construed, the EFF said, as having anything to do with the national shutdown it has called for 20 March. The shutdown, which is to demand the immediate resignation of Ramaphosa, is the next likely test of SAPS's ability, or inclination, to protect the public. 

EFF leader Julius Malema provocatively warned in a televised speech that there will be “no school, no university, no factory, no bus, no taxi, no trucks, no trains” moving on that day. 

“Like Sharpeville, we are not scared. Let the state come with its power, we will come with our mass power … they will find us ready,” said Malema.

Both the hospital disruption and the planned national shutdown cloak themselves in spurious legality. 

The EFF claims a “constitutional right” to protest and shut down the country, ignoring that this is not an unfettered right. Others have an equal right to work, to shop, to travel unhindered. The EFF’s actions, however, are always intimidatory — in tones of fake concern it has warned shops and businesses to close on 20 March in order to avoid being looted.

The health sector strikers, too, are indifferent to the spirit of the law. Their tactic is to game the appeals process.

The strike has twice been ruled illegal. Each time the health union appeals the finding and, under the cover of the appeal process, proceeds with the interdicted strike, thumbing its nose at the judiciary’s futile attempts to impose order.

If constitutional protections are easily circumvented, with no consequences, and law enforcement is close to non-existent, life becomes difficult and dangerous. While those who can afford it can always obtain security services and private health care, the vast majority of South Africans cannot.

It’s the ordinary citizen — “our people”, in Ramaphosa’s parlance — who are most vulnerable, most abused, and most preyed upon. And, fortunately for the ANC, seemingly most forbearing.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye