Dangers of returning to a ‘normal’ SA

Posted on July 25, 2021


(First published on Fin24)

The events of recent weeks have once again highlighted the gross inequalities and the legacy of apartheid geography that remain South African realities.  They also revealed that the poison of ethnic nationalism continues to course through parts of the body politic.

As a resut, there are many lessons to be learned, some of which, although vital, will remain on the margins.  Because the loudest cry now is for a return to normalcy, to get back to life as it was, albeit with a few adjustments along the way. 
But it was the very conditions that existed — the “normal” now apparently called for — that created the conditions for the death and destruction in KZN and Gauteng.  Yet an explosion of this kind — or even worse — was warned about by the labour movement in this column more than a decade ago.  

And, after all, regular, but largely isolated, incidents of burning tyres, barricades and looting have, for years, been part of daily life, not generally reported on by the national media, but mentioned in the daily traffic reports.

The xenophobic (more accurately, Afrophobic) violence that engulfed many townships around the country in 2008 was also a portent of what could lie in store on a greater scale.  Social media provided the spark then that ignited what was widespread — and often politically promoted — resentment against foreigners.

But small traders, of whatever ethnicity, who are often desperate unemployed workers trying to eke out a living, are the usual victims.  And they will continue to be so, not having insurance policies or shareholder funds to fall back on.

Numbers of the desperate hungry, caught up in the excitement and potential of the moment, will also almost certainly make up the majority of those jailed.  They will probably join a handful of individuals who encouraged the mayhem and a few stupid enough to be filmed loading their late model luxury sedans with items such as flat screen TVs.

The major sufferers from this latest eruption will also not be the criminals who stripped liquor stores and car dealerships, removing cases of booze and wheels, batteries and car parts in trucks, trailers and bakkies.  If recent history is any guide, they are unlikely to be be apprehended.

That would be part of the return to the “:normal”.that was warned about more than a decade ago by the likes of Zwelinizima Vavi, at the time general secretary of Cosatu.  He spoke of a “powder keg”of unemployment, hunger and desperation that was creating an explosive mix with an ever shortening fuse.

Then, little more than 15 years ago, the answer proposed was a change in ANC leadership.  With the backing of a heavily SA Communist Party influenced Cosatu, President Thabo Mbeki was replaced by Jacob Zuma.  

A terrible mistake, Vavi now concedes.  Because the change merely encouraged the networks of patronage and corruption that had existed since the days when the ANC was in exile.  

Then, as in the post apartheid years, the priority for the ANC leadership was to maintain unity at all costs.  The ANC in exile did so while claiming to be the “true representative of the South African people” while, at the same time, informing the youth, that “the ANC is your mother and father”.

It was an attempt to promote unquestioned obedience or, at the very least, a deep sense of loyalty to the “family”, united as a “broad church”..  What this meant was that the ANC, when it became the governing party, retained the networks of nepotism, corruption and patronage that had been eloquently complained about as far back as 1968.  

The so-called “Zuma years” merely saw this reality become more blatant  That overt support for Zuma continued to be expressed by the ANC leadership — in parliament and elsewhere — was evidence of the dedication to unity at all costs,

In the wake of the recent chaos, a few commentators have speculated — as some within the ANC were doing, 30 years ago — that a split is looming in Africa’s oldest liberation movement;  that honest, principled, social democratic elements within the ANC will finally walk away from the rot and the rightwing.

The chaos of recent weeks has again seen these issues raised;  they will be ignored at our collective peril.  But the prime focus, whatever the political outcome, should be on what is, in fact, the most horrific long-term damage done, especially since the arrival of the pandemic:  the creation of another “lost generation”.  

A third of children under five are already stunted, with five million recognised to be living in abject poverty.  Their futures have been further compromised by official neglect and the chaos and trauma of recent weeks.

Perhaps, as the labour movement has suggested, a basic income grant and a move to universal access to early childhood development should be the main priority.  After all, damaged shopping malls can readily be rebuilt;  not so damaged children.

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