SA is heading down a dangerous path

William Saunderson-Meyer says once sporadic community violence is becoming more frequent and brazen


South Africa is burning. It’s not yet a conflagration but to ignore its potential to become one would be a terrible mistake.

The fiery eruptions are claimed to be about failed service delivery, or corruption, or too little policing. Or, in the case of taxi protests, too much policing. Or the wrong cadre in the job. Or all of the above.

The resulting militancy and rage can be called resistance. Or call it revolution. Call it insurrection. Or cloak it in euphemism: “Angry protests that degenerated…”.

Whatever the terminology of the propagandists and the apologists, the situation is poised. The sporadic community violence that has been bubbling nationwide for years appears to becoming more frequent, more brazen, more organised, and more directed at securing specific political outcomes.

The problem needs to be addressed, but the SA Police Service seems to lack the ability to do anything, while the African National Congress seems to lack the courage to do anything. Into that vacuum slide the firebrands, the criminals, and the political hyenas.

In North West, for the past two months, there has been ongoing violence, with tire-burning, shop-looting mobs that demanded the exit of the province’s premier. Union vigilantes have joined in and, ironically citing poor healthcare, have with callous indifference barricaded hospitals and clinics, not allowing staff or patient access, as well as interdicting medical supplies. 

The police have responded cautiously. In April, there reportedly were 400 arrests but very few since, as President Cyril Ramaphosa seeks a political solution – getting rid of the premier and installing a more capable and less corrupt administration.

In KwaZulu-Natal, a fortnight ago, the N3 highway – the umbilical cord joining Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse, to Durban, Africa’s busiest port – was closed for almost 48 hours. What the media forgivingly terms “protestors” looted and set alight 35 long-haul trucks, causing hundreds of millions of rands of losses.

It was the second such incident within days, yet the police somehow managed to be caught completely flat-footed. They could arrest only 54 people, not even in the act but afterwards, during a house-to-search for looted goods. Only six had to appear in court, charged with theft.

In the Western Cape, this week, a Muizenberg restaurant was firebombed by what Afrovoice called “illegal land invaders” – as opposed, presumably, to the “legal” land invaders that are punted by radicals. Cars were stoned, several buildings set alight, and two councillors briefly held hostage.

The damage was around R8m. Only two arrests were made.

These are only some recent, dramatic incidents. There are many more. They flare briefly in the consciousness of a media which, on the whole, has the attention span of gnat and the analytical focus of a firefly.

Yet, cumulatively, they are pushing an unheeding SA along a dangerous path. No government can indefinitely allow sustained, spreading public violence by its citizenry. Especially not when this changes from being the relatively spontaneous venting of anger, to being a calculated political strategy. At least, not if it hopes to remain the government.

A Human Sciences Research Council survey of attitudes in North West province gives a glimpse of where we are headed. Fewer than a fifth of the respondents thought that peaceful demonstrations could bring change, while 13% endorsed violent actions as an effective instrument of change.

In an interview with me, one of the researchers, Jare Struwig, notes that this is a disturbingly high statistic in a democracy. “The government faces a real challenge, since there are radical groups in our politics that endorse the rhetoric of militancy and violent conflict,” she says. “And this is getting worse.”

The ANC faces this challenge with its hands voluntarily tied behind its back. Whatever the immediate spark that ignites riotous behaviour, the fact that most South Africans are living in poverty-wracked squalor, with no prospects of relief, provides ready justification for the ANC and its cohorts’ complicit tolerance of public violence.

As Professor Susan Booysen of the University of the Witwatersrand puts it in a Daily Maverick article, “This is a guilt-ridden government that knows it shares responsibility for failing its people and enters elections on the grace of forgiveness of continuously disadvantaged citizens.” For this reason, “it cannot afford to be seen acting against the poor”.

Booysen cites as evidence the “hesitant tones” of the Kwa-Zulu Natal MEC for Community Safety, Mxolisi Kaunda: “People must understand that we are still a country with laws, so we can’t break them and expect that nothing will be done. We are calling on the community to make sure that we calm the situation.”

More telling than Kaunda, in my view, was Police Minister Bheki Cele’s response. He refused to answer press inquiries on the N3 riot, except to refer them to Transport Minister Blade Nzimande for comment. No doubt when it’s factories and warehouses being torched, he’ll direct inquiries to Trade Minister Rob Davies.

This moral ambivalence is not a new phenomenon. The ANC has always been a schizophrenic creature, with one group enacting legislation, while another group will simultaneously be marching against those very same laws, baying angry defiance. 

But while such an evasion of responsibility is predictable, it is no longer sustainable. Like Struwig, Booysen warns that the landscape of protest is changing. “The couplet of Mooi River revolts also signified a new and more severe form of public protest. It was more systematically planned and executed, and magnified in than the protests that have gone before.”

Unless the government summons the political courage to deal with public violence, SA is edging towards a tipping point. 

Not towards the kind of mass action that is aimed at the actual toppling and replacement of government, which triggered President PW Botha’s state of emergency in 1985. Rather, towards governance held hostage to sinister and ruthless extra-parliamentary forces.

Most at risk are ordinary people. Especially concerned should be those who are vulnerable to easy scapegoating on account of their “privilege” – foreigners, businesses, the employed, ethnic minorities in general and white farmers in particular.

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