Why In The Wake of Unrest Unseen Since Apartheid, South Africa Will Never Be The Same – It Will Be Better
The dust has still only begun to settle after one of the most harrowing assaults on South Africa’s stability, its economy and its very social fabric.
But recently amid a brisk South African winter, only days before we annually commemorated the legacy of our Rainbow Nation’s founder, ‘Nelson Mandela Day’, did thousands of people descend upon our streets, making off with everything from essential foodstuffs to luxury items. In the provinces of Gauteng and Kwa-Zula Natal, entire shopping centers were burnt to the ground after looters ransacked them, costing the nation in total over $3 billion (USD) of damages, shaving nearly 1% off our headline GDP growth for 2021 in a near instant, while moreover, leaving hundreds injured or dead.
What happened during those days was not just a natural response to a country with the highest inequality rate in the world, but also an attempt to foment civil war. What has happened in South Africa this week has been a combination of many factors and a confluence of many causes; Zuma being jailed on a contempt charge that he caused himself; a cabal of politically connected crooks realising that the tide was finally turning in favour of Ramaphosa’s new dawn because of the confidence he has given to organs of state that had been hollowed out to do their jobs; and, an incredibly downtrodden mass of people without jobs or any hopes of ever being employed.
When infrastructure began to be targeted, with schools torched, community radio stations ransacked of their equipment and major economic distribution centers burned to the ground, when people were being dropped off at strategic locations with petrol in hand to start fires, it was clear that this was not a popular uprising fueled by the anger and hopelessness of, for example, the 75% of youth unemployed throughout the country. This was not just a natural response to the scenario of a country with the highest inequality rate in the world.
Let’s be clear. This was not being done for the poor of South Africa, but an attempt to foment civil war; a chance for a small group of individuals to escape being held accountable for their own acts of corruption — and then benefit economically from the chaos they themselves helped create.
But then something quintessentially South African happened. South Africans began standing up and stated, “not in my name.” As the chaos threatened to destroy the provincial economy of KwaZulu-Natal and bring the economic powerhouse of Gauteng to a standstill, the contagion was contained—and ultimately neutralized—by the will of the people.
In the absence of obvious police intervention, communities started self-organizing; people formed human chains around shopping centers to stop them from being demolished. Taxi drivers, the essential private/public transport solution in a country bereft of a proper public transport system and the bane of every other road user, emerged as unexpected guardians of public spaces and shops.
Other community organizations formed roadblocks, stopping cars entering townships and checking them for contraband affecting citizen’s arrests and confiscating loot where necessary. In many ways, it hearkened back to the community activism of the 1980’s, when the mobilization of the people internally was as great a weapon in the struggle against apartheid as the international isolation of the regime.
When I submitted this Column, many of the same newly-created organizations were still hard at work, cleaning up the mess that the criminals had caused. In many cases, they’ve been joined by other South Africans; white, colored and Indian, all picking up brooms and getting to work in trashed township shopping centers—or if not there in-person, giving money to help the needy and start the process of rebuilding.
There is also a reckoning presently at hand; upholding rule of law is sacrosanct to preserving the social fabric of any democracy, and our 27-year old democracy is no different.
An organised mobilisation campaign, utilising guerilla-style tactics not unlike those that existed under the previous apartheid system however in this case, executed across social media, has been reportedly behind much of the uprising; and now, the perpetrators behind it are being held responsible.
It has been further reported that organizations such as the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) forces, indeed incited targeted violence that spread through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng like a wave of terror, utilizing hash-tags on social media to crowdsource and bring criminality to centralized locations, such as #cyrilmustresign, #freejacobzuma and #shutdownSA.
Case in point, there was a well-coordinated attack on ATM machines during the unrest. These machines were not attacked by the masses. Organized criminals used the chaos as cover to professionally extract cash from ATMs, to then use the cash to pay off more criminals to create more chaos, a strategy which was applied during the apartheid days.
As we move on from the wreckage of this week, we are faced with two certainties: that justice and upholding rule of law has never been more vital than it is now, and there is no time left to lose to address the structural inequalities that are only getting worse in South Africa – this is our biggest challenge as we face our new dawn.
We have to create a new social compact. We have to create sustainable jobs. Business has to work with the government to create private public partnerships (PPP) to recapacitate and transform a public service that has become bloated, overpaid and inept.
While South Africa presently undertakes what has been recorded to be one of the slowest post-Covid economic recoveries in the world, we cannot look back; we have to create hope once again.
South Africa is a phenomenal country, with its own unique paradoxes and contradictions. However its people, not its enviable mineral wealth or natural resources, are its greatest jewels.
Many of those people have tragically been sorely treated by wave after wave of unfulfilled and often cynical promises by our government. Promised a better life, jobs and houses that would never come, leaving millions waiting as the gap between the masses and the empowered elites metastasized into a massive tumor that just threatened the lifeforce of this nation.
In Africa, veld fires are known as terrifying phenomena that raise everything in their path, leaving swathes of devastation, but then, with the rains that inevitably follow, come the green shoots of brand-new growth.
Yes, we have immense challenges. Many of them remain unresolved after decades of colonialism and decades of apartheid. Most of them have worsened by a decade of kleptocracy, which festered under the surface of our day to day lives until it finally tested our collective mettle. The government can’t fix these issues on their own.
But we also have the greatest asset of all—the resilience of a nation which has often threatened to splinter into its constituent parts but to date, thankfully, never has.
This has been our darkest hour, but we can take solace from the fact that it is always followed by the brightest new dawn. If we are to achieve this we have to work together, all of us, whether we are here at home or part of the South African expatriate diaspora that reaches to every corner of the globe. As we have seen in the kindness and humanity that followed the destruction this week, there is no action that is too small or too insignificant if it is positive.
During these events, the evil that lurks beneath, exposed itself – and was met by the good that is the true character of this wonderful country. A very real outcome of that will be a further strengthening of vital institutions that were hollowed out in the State Capture era.
This young country passed its greatest stress test actually with flying colours.
Nelson Mandela and his generation bequeathed us the blueprint for a future in which South Africa belongs to all who live in it, with equal and equitable access to all its wealth for the benefit of all. It is incumbent upon us to start building South Africa 2.0, a generation later.
The good news is that there are many of us determined to do just that.
*Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist, sponsor of the acclaimed, annually-held African Youth Survey (AYS), and one of New African’s 100 Most Influential Africans of 2020.