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The Ethnic Elephant In The Room – OpEd

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Now that the embers of the fires that destroyed buildings and property across parts of South Africa during last month’s unrest have finally been extinguished, analysis of the recent unrest that took place and the factors that caused them has begun in earnest. Although much commentary has been written in the intervening month, consensus as to the nature and exact cause of the unrest remains elusive. According to some analysts, it was a spontaneous outpouring of popular anger over last month’s arrest and incarceration of former President Zuma on charges of contempt of court after he refused to comply with a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Judicial Commission into State Capture. Others have it that the unrest was a well-orchestrated insurrection that was masterminded by a few key instigators. Yet others claim that there was nothing popular about these protests at all and maintain that it was nothing more than an attempt by certain disgruntled factions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to settle internal political battles.  

With so much uncertainty surrounding the causes of the unrest and with the economic and socio-political costs of the roughly week-long violence having yet to be tallied, it is foolhardy to speculate on the main cause of this outbreak of public violence and probably wisest to take the view that it was caused by a combination of the factors above. More self-evident, at least based upon media reports and the informed analysis that has been written in the weeks following this episode, ‘race’ and the role that racial discrimination might have played in the violence has begun to emerge as a key talking point in the national conversation on the violence and the causes thereof. That race has entered the conversation now taking place is likely to come as little surprise to many South Africans or the casual international observer who has a passing knowledge of South Africa’s divided history of legalised racial discrimination and its extremely unequal distribution of national income that is still heavily skewed along racial lines even after nearly three decades of democracy. While the emergence of race as a talking point might be considered a matter of inevitability to many of these observers, the racial divisions that have been thrust into the spotlight is likely to have come as a surprise: rather than divisions between black Africans and Whites, race relations between black Africans and members of the Indian minority have come under scrutiny following allegations that racism against black Africans by Indians played a role in what has been dubbed the ‘Phoenix Massacre’ in which 36 people (mainly black Africans) were reportedly killed. 

By way of background for the benefit of non-South African readers, Indians are one of South Africa’s four main race groups along with black Africans, Coloureds and Whites. Although they make up less than three percent of South Africa’s total population, they form a significant and economically influential minority in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where the majority of them reside. Relatively more affluent than black Africans who form the majority in this province and the country as a whole, race relations between these two groups are generally tense and complicated. This tense relationship is a legacy of memories of deadly past clashes that has been compounded by accusations of exploitation and privilege that often erupts into open hostility. Black Africans themselves are divided into several language or ethnic groups including Zulus, Xhosas and Tswanas among others. 

Racial identity, however, was not the main dimension of identity that was the focus at first. Initially at least, much emphasis was placed on black Africans’ sub-identities and the role that these affiliations might have played in the violence and looting that rocked the country. Specifically, the possibility that these riots were stoked by Zulu ethnic chauvinism and Zulus’ perceptions of anti-Zulu bias was the subject of focus. Indeed, President Ramaphosa described the unrest in these terms in his first address to the nation on the violence that was racking the country at the time. In this address, he identified ‘ethnic mobilisation’ explicitly as a cause of the unrest. He has subsequently backtracked on this statement after receiving criticism thereon from several quarters. His about-turn is reflected in the commentary and analysis that has been written after the unrest ended which has tended to be silent on the potential role that ethnic mobilisation might have played. Although this explanation seems to have been quickly discarded by most mainstream commentators, there may be sufficient reason to retain if not pursue the hypothesis that there was an ethnic aspect to the unrest as an active line of enquiry. 

The first reason to do so can be gleaned from the initial memes and calls to protest action that appeared on social media. Written mainly in isiZulu, these calls had a strong whiff of Zulu victimhood stemming from perceived Zulu grievances. These sentiments echo the line peddled by President Zuma, himself a Zulu, who accused National Prosecution Authority officials of ethnic discrimination in court papers in a recent corruption trial by alleging that they referred to him as ‘the Zulu boy’. Secondly, consider that the unrest was confined, by and large, to the provinces of KZN and Gauteng. These are parts of the country where Zulus form the majority or where there is a large Zulu presence respectively. Although it would be intellectually lazy to infer from this that the unrest was an uprising of the Zulus, the concentration of violent activity in these areas suggests that the calls to engage in public violence resonated most deeply among Zulus. The fact that Zulus appear to have been more receptive of the message to engage in looting and public violence than members of other groups raises questions as to why this was the case, more so since rates of poverty and unemployment, reasons which appear on most commentators’ list of the main causes of the unrest, are actually higher in other parts of the country. Consider too the way in which looting and calls to participate in public violence were rejected by community leaders and ordinary community members in other parts of the country. Their rejection was often framed in bigoted ethnic terms, by dismissing the looting as a ‘Zulu thing’ or by resorting to ethnic stereotypes surrounding the supposedly martial qualities of Zulu people to explain the reasons for the unrest. Residents of the border areas of some provinces, the majority Xhosa inhabited Eastern Cape for example, even went so far as to call for blocking access into their province to residents of neighbouring Zulu-majority KZN on the grounds that KZN residents planned to loot these areas or would push up prices by coming to shop in the Eastern Cape shops that have not been looted. 

Thus, for all the commentary and analysis that has been written following the unrest that has attempted to explain it in macroeconomic terms or in terms of political differences, ordinary South Africans’ immediate reactions to the events that took place last month and their perceptions of the cause of these events were filtered through the lens of their ethnic identities and often relied on crude ideas about ethnic stereotypes and racial divisions. Presumably, these sorts of sentiments that prevail at the local and provincial level in the country and memories of post-colonial Africa’s bloody history of inter-ethnic strife, a part of South Africa’s own history that is often overlooked in official and popular narratives of that nation’s journey from apartheid to the New South Africa, would make government and politicians very uneasy.  

Born of this anxiety, politicians would probably want to divert popular attention away from potential ethnic tensions between members of the black African majority. Far more expedient and less politically dangerous, or so the astute politician might calculate, to push a familiar narrative of racism and discrimination against black Africans as a group in an attempt to preserve black African unity by channelling their anger outward along familiar lines. It is against this backdrop that much of the academic and popular discussion of the unrest that engulfed the country last month has taken place and against which media coverage of the ‘Phoenix Massacre’ must be seen. 

Although seemingly the lesser of two evils, tolerating bigotry and allowing sundry leaders and commentators to stoke racial animosities as a distraction to preserve black African unity is a dangerous ploy which, while it might appear to douse latent intra-group tensions for now, may only serve to embolden hardliners and ethnic bigots on all sides even further in future. This will only increase the risk of catastrophic inter and intra-racial group violence occurring in future. To see the consequences of tolerating bigotry, one need only observe the increasing incidence of xenophobic attacks across the country. Arguably, this is the net result of politicians and leaders of various ilk in South Africa stoking anti-foreigner sentiments by scapegoating foreigners and migrants for a host of social ills. Seen from this perspective, it is hardly unexpected that last month’s unrest and looting erupted in the two provinces where anti-foreigner sentiment seems to be strongest and the killing of foreign shop owners and foreign truck drivers amongst others and the looting of their goods has long gone unpunished. 

Given the dangers inherent in adopting a political strategy based on diversion and scapegoating, it is incumbent upon leaders to direct their efforts towards healing racial divisions rather than exploiting them for short-term gain lest their utterances provide bigots the minimal justification they need to engage in acts of lawlessness and violence against groups that leaders have deemed politically and socially ‘acceptable’ to target. Political parties and leaders could start by toning down their racial rhetoric and sanctioning those leaders who use race-baiting or employ cheap tricks to mobilise their constituents in order to secure a greater public profile and short-term political gains. Ordinary citizens could begin by refraining from engaging in racially provocative behaviour such as using incendiary racist language on social media for example. As a country, South Africa could also reaffirm its commitment to the spirit of non-racialism with which it was infused during the early years of democracy and which was espoused by leaders like chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archbishop Desmond Tutu and founding father President Nelson Mandela. Sadly, this seems to have fallen from vogue in political discourse as the economy has floundered and the expectations of economic upliftment which all South Africans, the poor especially, vested in the democratic transition remained unmet. More difficultly, in the longer-term government may wish to break with apartheid-era practice and reconsider the continued use of cultural identities to guide its policies to address the country’s stubbornly high rates of poverty and unemployment and reduce inequality. By eliminating the benefits associated with individuals’ racial classification, leaders’ incentives to politicise identities and engage in ethnic mobilisation might be reduced. 

Should South Africa take these steps, the country might just avoid (barely so) the ethnic militarisation and ultimately the ethnic cataclysm that appears to lie in store in future, if the commentary and opinions that have been allowed to flourish in the weeks since the unrest began following the imprisonment of former President Zuma is anything to go by that is. If not, then its hopes of navigating the many ethnic, racial and provincial divisions which beset the country appears slim. In that case, the only questions worth asking would not be about what caused the current unrest but from whence the spark that lights the next great conflagration will come. 

*Gerard Boyce is an Economist who is employed as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity

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