South Africa nears the tipping point

William Saunderson-Meyer says govt must summon the political courage to deal with public violence


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

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

The militancy and rage can be called resistance. Or revolution. Call it insurrection, if you will. Or cloak it in the euphemism of “angry protest”.

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 be becoming more frequent, more brazen, more organised, and more directed at securing specific political outcomes.

The problem has to be addressed urgently, 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.

I wrote this above passage of analysis more than a year ago. It bears verbatim repetition because the conditions I described then have become worse and the slide that is accelerating.

Political commentary should be as even-handed as is feasible, neither Cassandra nor Pollyanna. While those were despairing words, they were also carefully weighed. 

There is scant comfort to find that one is not alone in one’s despondency and apprehension. These are feelings that appear to be shared by virtually everyone one talks to. Even activists, who grittily soldiered on through the valleys of apartheid despair, now feel overwhelmed and betrayed by the ANC’s failures.

On Politicsweb, columnist Dave Bullard wrote this week that “a heavy cloud of hopelessness and helplessness hangs over South Africa … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such gloom among my fellow countrymen. Even the imposition of sanctions in the 1980s and the nervousness ahead of the 1994 election are minor compared with what we are seeing today.”

And also this week, on BusinessLive, Institute of Race Relations’ analyst Gareth van Onselen sketches an apocalyptic vision of a country that is already engaged in a low-grade civil war. “There is the ANC, and the people. And they are at each other’s throat. It is not metaphorical, but real. Blood is being spilt. At its heart lies the legitimacy of the state, against which everyone, in one way or another, has taken up arms.”

There can be little doubt that, so far, Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn has proved illusory, illuminating not the rosy uplands that were promised but instead lifting the veil on a bleak and blighted heath, far worse than most of us imagined. And this is the place where the nation remains stubbornly, perhaps irretrievably, mired.

State capture under the former president’s encouragement — and the present president’s condonation — is estimated at over a trillion rand. But that’s the least of it.

There is virtually not an international economic or social-health comparator that SA has not sagged against. Nor is there a moral or ethical standard that we have not betrayed. 

We are a country literally grinding to a halt. In the 2017/2018 financial year, arson attacks on arson attacks cost the Passenger Rail Agency close on a billion rand with 1,496 rail carriages destroyed, but with virtually no arrests made and certainly no convictions achieved. 

Countrywide, in the past year, around 1,300 truck-and-trailer rigs have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, with direct economic costs of about R1.3bn. According to the Road Freight Association, since March 2018, there have been 213 deaths, but again precious few arrests, except on minor charges of possession of stolen goods.

Mirroring in miniature the implosion of almost all of South Africa’s giant state-owned entities — Eskom, Transnet, South African Airways, PetroSA, Denel and almost 700 others — local government is on its knees. Some three-quarters of local municipalities need, in the words of the Auditor-General, urgent intervention to avoid collapse, while a third are already bankrupt. 

The recent protracted total failure of water supplies in Grahamstown and on most of the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast are not anomalies. Almost half of municipalities don’t even have a policy, never mind a plan, on how to provide water and sanitation.

These are omens of nationwide collapses that will increase existing levels of township protest and violence, and will sorely test the government’s ability to maintain public order. These developments, I wrote in that column, flare briefly in the consciousness of a media which, on the whole, has the attention span of a gnat and the analytical focus of a firefly.

Last year a Human Sciences Research Council survey of attitudes in North West province found that 13% endorsed violent actions as an effective instrument of change. It has become worse, since then: an IRR pre-election survey found that a staggering 40% of SA voters believed that violent protest was the only way to get service delivery.

These are fertile fields for tilling by the likes of the Economic Freedom Fighters, just one of a number of radical groups that actively encourage militancy and conflict. (Although, as its leader Julius Malema has reassured the spineless SA Human Rights Council, not, for the moment, white genocide.)

William Gumede, associate professor of governance at Wits, writes in BusinessLive this week that “black victimhood” is being used as an excuse to avoid accountability. “Black leaders in government and the private sector are increasingly using colonialism, apartheid and Western ‘imperialism’ to cover their incompetence, mismanagement and corruption.” 

Bullard calls it “Operation White Hatred” but says the good news is that it is a diminishing problem, since “most people I know with white skins and transferable skills are planning their exit”. Van Onselen sees it as more than a simple racial phenomenon, warning: “There is a civil war out there, and systematically and unrelentingly, it is coming closer and closer to your own doorstep.”

Songezo Zibi, former editor of Business Day, writing this week on News24, offers nought for our comfort. “Until there is a new political school of thought that seeks .. to build social structures that deepen accountability, our situation will not improve. We shall continue to degenerate, risking violent social upheaval in a future that will, ironically, probably be led by the same greedy elites who cultivated and drove our devastation to begin with.”

A globetrotting Canadian journalist friend used to say, post-1994, that South Africans were the most absurdly optimistic people that she had ever met. Alas, that optimism is shrivelling, turning sour on the vine.

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