South Africa is turning on itself

By Awande Buthelezi and Vishwas Satgar

Jacob Zuma is like Michael Jackson in Thriller, a master of the great disaster. He has played his endgame: you bring me down, I bring it all down.

The mass looting over the past few days is not a sign of revolution in our streets and on television. Instead, this is the coming to life of South Africa’s most scary nightmare: a society turning on itself in an orgy of large scale public violence.  More than 25 years of ANC misrule placed us on this trajectory as it produced a crisis-ridden society through AIDs denialism, a consistently high structural unemployment rate (now at 42%), rampant corruption, instability in higher education, the Marikana massacre, a dysfunctional state, an inadequate pandemic response and now factional divisions fuelling societal conflict. These failures explain the misery of the African majority but have also set the stage for South African society to kill itself.

Are we going to be victims or are we going to move beyond the nightmare of a degenerate national liberation politics? What we do now to stop the killing of our society will determine whether we have a post-ANC future. We are both from KwaZulu-Natal, with roots and strong family ties in the province. Awande has family living in communities in which violence has been perpetrated by members of those communities against workplaces – malls, factories and shops – that employ members from those very same communities. This community-worker divide challenges any crude ethnicisation of the violence; such as Zulus against Ramaphosa’s government. Vishwas has family in communities that have thrown up self-defence and armed protection units. From “Indian neighbourhoods” in the city of Pietermaritzburg, where Gandhi’s statue stands, to Stanger, Phoenix and beyond, fear, racial tension and division separate groups of mainly African looters and Indian residents.

Despite how volatile and dangerous these fault-lines might be, this is not a race war and cannot be generalised into an African versus Indian conflict — though some insidious forces want it to become such.   When several trucks were burnt on the N3, after Zuma’s incarceration, what was striking was how ineffective the KwaZulu-Natal political power structure was in stemming the escalation. Institutions of Zulu nationalism, such as the Inkatha Freedom Party and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, prime minister to the Zulu monarch, faded into the background — though the belated statement by the new Zulu monarch calling for an end to the violence must be acknowledged and welcomed. The Premier of the province sat neutralised in a deeply divided ANC, the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, who hails from Dambuza in Pietermaritzburg, put out a meek statement against the violence. Cosatu, which played a crucial role in community peace pacts in the early 1990s, vanished in the maelstrom of the moment.

What is emerging instead are local community leaders reaching out to each other across race and community divides. All are trying to secure a just peace and keep alive non-racial leadership. These are leaders that have been made by this crisis and will have to face a province in which destroyed shops, malls and factories are rebuilt and disrupted value chains cranked up again. These are the leaders that will have to deal with the food shortages. These are the leaders that will observe how middle classes of all races migrate out of the province as it becomes infamous as a paradise for looters. South Africa has to support this new leadership as it holds the line.

How do we analyse the violence? Zuma instigation is an obvious theory, but it breaks down in the unfolding chaos. The media optic was crude as it either collapsed everyone into a #FreeZuma protester or a looter.  It is clear there are different social forces driving the looting including organised criminal elements, starving people (over 30 million live in food-stress) and greedy opportunists (driving fancy cars and hauling away loot). Each of these elements requires a different strategy.

Zuma-linked instigators need to be tracked through social media network analysis of public statements inciting violence and arrested. Local crime intelligence needs to kick in and make the connection between existing crime networks and community hot-spots, even offering rewards for information leading to arrests. Opportunists need to be picked out and made to face the courts. The hungry should not be criminalised, but targeted for direct material support. The National Prosecuting Authority needs to  support the building of this evidence-based pipeline.

Instead, the Minister of Police is overplaying the narrative of violence against the state, the 12 major kingpins behind it all and has exaggerated his behind-the-scenes role to prevent worse mayhem. With thousands of jobs on the line, Bheki Cele’s media spin wears thin. His current public narrative does not address mass-based looting.

If the rule of law is to be affirmed, the violence has to be addressed in a precedent-setting way to prevent future recurrence. There have to be serious consequences. Only 12 kingpins going to jail is certainly not enough. All those responsible must be held to account. Smart frontline policing, working with communities and social constituencies, has to bring this tragic saga to a just end.

Several ghoulish characters have been revealed — each with a role in the killing of our society.

Zuma is like Michael Jackson in Thriller, a master of the great disaster,  at the forefront of the zombie hordes. He has played his endgame: you bring me down, I bring it all down. His remaking of thievery as legitimate and the crux of national liberation has not been lost on the hordes. Zuma lives in radical economic looting.

However, social and political chaos cannot be controlled, even by the kingpin of the zombies. Even after the unthinking hordes wipe out everything, they are faced with the logic of this process; they turn on each other.

President Ramaphosa, a shift-shaper, projects himself as a parody of Nelson Mandela, but with a failing strategy. His current government response to the pandemic has been uncaring. Food relief failed, social relief grants were dropped, austerity is biting into an embattled public service and he assumes a private sector that has failed to create decent jobs over several decades will do so now. Social conflict and desperation stalk the land because of his government’s policy choices.

This is in contrast to US president Joe Biden, for instance, who recognised that to keep his society together massive cash transfers had to happen. Biden also recognised income inequality and disparities in wealth have to be challenged through progressive taxation.

Our shift-shaper gives a national address on the violence and hints at unemployment as a problem and offers nothing concrete. His government has arrogantly ignored calls from across progressive civil society for a non-means-tested basic income grant and for the democratisation of food relief efforts by the Solidarity Fund and government departments, so communities are directly involved in building food sovereign systems.

Then there is the vampire of capital, feeding off the economic body of the imagined nation. In South Africa, 10% of income earners receive 65% of wealth. Moreover, wealth is also disproportionately owned, with 10% having about 80% of the wealth. Wealthy plutocrats believed that by donating to the Solidarity Fund their responsibility to society was over. In the midst of the pandemic, millions are being paid to CEOs as bonuses and through high salaries. Business organisations and people are not stepping up to say these salaries are no longer viable in such an unequal society. None are standing up to say we need greater taxation on the wealthy to ensure we have an inclusive democracy. The vampires need to understand the current moment in South Africa is also about the greedy choices they have made.

Racial divides cannot be allowed to escalate into crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes or crimes of aggression. The underlying conditions of inequality and social desperation that intersected with the pandemic have to be addressed.

More social explosions are likely but there is no need for a state of emergency or massive spending on excessive military deployment. Instead, resources must be channelled into immediate food relief, food sovereignty pathways and a universal basic grant (#UBIGNOW). The grant can be designed and implemented without increasing public debt, particularly if it is linked to progressive taxation.

The time is now for bold, systemic solutions to improve the lives of the majority and continue our unfinished radical non-racial project. South Africa must move beyond ANC factionalism and failure. DM

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 16 July 2021

South Africa is turning on itself