As the week began, South Africa was confronted with scenes illustrating a sinister underside to the country.

Television viewers couldn’t avoid it. Reporters traversed pillaged streets, passed shattered windows and security doors twisted open. The damaged merchandise from stores carpeted the ground. Where pickings were to be had, crowds streamed into shopping centres, emerging with their wares – clothes and mattresses, washing machines and furniture, booze and food. One woman emerged toting a bucket full of flowers.

Not infrequently, after the crowds had dispersed, fires followed. It was as if an act of final destruction was needed to underline the despoliation. Police officers wandered about with an air of desolate non-authority, occasionally trying to arrest a straggling looter, or discharging a few shotgun blasts that seemed entirely symbolic – less impotent than irrelevant.

But nothing caught the state of the country quite like the stoic professionalism of one on-the-spot reporter: ‘Let’s try and walk to that shop that is being looted over there.’ A tacit recognition that the abominable had become the ordinary.

Indeed, these events should have surprised no one; shocked all of us, yes, but not surprised us. They had been brewing in the crowds amassed to support the former president as he called defiance on the judiciary, and in the frustrations that accompanied the economic malaise that has been South Africa’s lot for over a decade, compounded by the privations inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to deal with it (on Monday, South Africa was into day 473 of the lockdown).

This is also not without precedent. Violent instability has been a feature of South Africa for decades, and the escalation of ‘protests’ in recent years has been widely noted. Mostly, they have just been destructive rather than lethal. Think about the razing of libraries or the trashing of clothing stores and pharmacy chains.

Below the surface

Lethality, though, has always lurked below the surface of our society, whether in omnipresent violent crime, political assassination, or xenophobic pogroms. When security guards went on strike in 2006, dozens of deaths followed. Not a single prosecution resulted, and the memory has been comfortably retired to the back of our collective mind.

So, as we look with trepidation on what has transpired over the past week, we shudder and we #PrayForSouthAfrica.

These are symptoms of a deeper dysfunction in the country’s political culture, and this is evident in the chaos we have seen over the past week. Above all, the turmoil bespeaks a failure of governance, a dereliction of responsibility on the part of those who preside over us.

Much has been made over the years of the non-responsiveness and dysfunctionality – even the callousness – of the state. Most pronounced at municipal level, these are phenomena familiar to South Africans.  Corruption, neglect, incompetence and so on. This is a state under an arrogant political class that has felt assured of its right to incumbency, not just because of generally favourable election returns, but because of a belief that history has granted it the power.

Under these circumstances the mundane functions of governance are neglected if not disparaged. For some, they are mere conduits to wealth and patronage. For the more ideologically high-minded, they are an afterthought, compared with the great philosophical struggles that must be fought. Together, these approaches produce a state that is neither capable, nor particularly interested in governing.

And so, potholed roads and failing water and electricity infrastructure have become a daily reality, almost an unremarkable one, chewing away at the daily lives of the country’s people. Remember that as the pandemic struck, many lacked the basic facilities to cleanse and sanitise for want of a decent water supply.


Indeed, there is both symmetry and irony in a report in the Sunday press that moves were now under way to ensure that officials were properly qualified for their positions. This promise has been in the air for well over a decade.

Part of the backstory to the failing of the state was the failure to build the productive, meritocratic and ethical civil service that the constitutional provisions envisaged. Instead, less than two years after our Constitution was adopted, the African National Congress declared its intention to politicise the civil service (and all other ‘levers of power’) through ‘cadre deployment’. Decline was inevitable from that point. This was the original ‘state capture’, a process far more profoundly damaging than anything that an itinerant group of opportunists from India could arrange. And while much attention has been paid to holding the Guptas accountable, cadre deployment remains ANC policy.

There have been allegations of sinister behind-the-scenes machinations directing the mayhem. Conspiracy theories can be profoundly comforting, as they imply that our problems are willed on us by others, who can be identified and removed. Treat these claims with scepticism, for these events needed scant encouragement. Yet should there be any truth to these claims, we would do well to ponder how the systematic politicisation of the state contributed to them.

Similarly, the promise of non-racialism was dropped. The imperative – which should always have topped the country’s agenda – of bringing economic opportunity and social mobility to the economically marginalised came to be defined in terms of race. This is when the Employment Equity Commission punted percentages by race, with no explanation of how or why, and the labour bureaucracy demanded ever more intrusive and punitive measures to bring employers into line.

Yet these are hard questions, not just in South Africa but around the world. Had South Africa maintained the growth that it was achieving towards the end of President Mbeki’s presidency, all of this might look different. So too would it if South Africa could educate its youth to the standards of even poorer developing countries, or make possible an entrepreneurial uptake that our African peers achieve.

Agonised claims

We now see agonised claims that ethnicity has been used for mobilisation. True enough as far as it goes, and this is not the first time – it was intrinsic to Jacob Zuma’s brand during his own fightback, after his expulsion from the deputy presidency in 2005. But it is also the stepchild of the race-counting and race-baiting that have come to characterise so much of our politics and policy, as well as the conversations of our elites.

Once legitimised, the use of ascriptive identities as a political tool becomes very difficult to control, and resentments difficult to keep focused on any one target. The ANC has long feared the demon of tribalism, yet demons can be summoned in many ways; once unleashed, they do not behave. This has been a reckless game, and we periodically pay the price for it.

Understand that our malaise has been created not just by an unpropitious set of circumstances or dire historical legacies (though they certainly are that too) but by conscious and deliberate political decisions. Mobs are being condemned for plundering supermarkets, but what example has been set by a progression of leaders who have not only helped themselves to a great deal more, but have suborned institutions to assist them in doing so, have dodged meaningful accountability and – for those few who have been cornered and punished – all too often have been able to emerge into new positions of influence. (South Africans once celebrated their leaders coming out of prison; there is something profoundly dystopian about the heroes’ send-offs into prison that we have seen from time to time.)  

More than this, South Africa is a country accustomed to the spectre of violence being wielded as a political weapon. Those who now decry what is happening might do well to recall how Zuma’s ascendency was serenaded by promises of ‘blood on the floor’ if his path was interrupted by such trivialities as the law. Raw, debased language for raw, debased politics.

‘Shoot and kill’

Zwelinzima Vavi – a man much admired in many corners – had this to say in June 2008: ‘Because Jacob Zuma is one of us, and he is one of our leaders, for him, we are prepared to lay our lives (sic) and to shoot and kill.’ This has to be one of the most direct affirmations of the acceptability of violence in post-1994 politics. The pushback was negligible.

The SA Human Rights Commission initially called on him to retract his remarks, but after a meeting – in which he reaffirmed that ‘I was merely stating a principle that comrades should be ready to defend one another and when necessary that may involve killing’ and that the ‘general principle that taking up arms is always a possibility’ (though, don’t worry, ‘not under the current conditions’) – it ‘accepted’ his explanation. The matter was closed, and the incident pretty much forgotten.

Another day in South Africa. As is today.

Writing about his own country, Chinua Achebe put his finger on it: ‘The trouble with Nigeria is simply a failure of leadership…The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership.’ Simply change the national reference point, and it speaks with force and eloquence to our circumstances.

Even as tumult unfolds around us, we can have some confidence that it will end. Its impacts will be felt for some time, in disrupted supply chains, heightened insecurity, hardened economic circumstances and quite possibly in the reversal of gains made in managing the pandemic. It has shaken the country. But on the evidence of past incidents, it’s unlikely to produce any serious introspection or change on the part of the governing party. This is not something that its complacent and ideologically fixated leadership is capable of.

‘Elements of the old order’

A case in point: a statement by a group of ANC veterans – the Strategic Dialogue Group – resurrects thinking that would not have been out of place in the early 1990s. ‘These acts of violence,’ the group said, ‘are a well-organised counter-revolutionary offensive against the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) by elements of the old order in cahoots with some within the ranks of the democratic movement.’

There is more to note there than just the conspiratorial mindset. It is the pursuit of the NDR that lies behind the pathologies that have crippled governance, particularly cadre deployment. It is a counter-constitutional abomination that has no business in a constitutional democracy, yet here we are.

Meanwhile, President Ramaphosa, addressing the country as he sent in the army, had this to say: ‘This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty and inequality in our society is unsustainable. We cannot expect a lasting and durable peace if we do not create jobs and build a more just and equitable society in which all South Africans can participate freely and equally. We must therefore commit ourselves not only to peace, but to greater economic opportunity for all.’

Well and good, and hardly original. But unless the government he leads is willing to make a sharp about-turn, these are just so many words that we have heard before. During his presidency, the government has pursued as its flagship policy programme the downgrading of property rights. Despite the assumption of many analysts, the pandemic seems to have fortified rather than challenged that push, and not only in respect of land. The president declared that the ‘recovery’ would be led by the state. As long as he has the South African state in mind and refuses to touch the underlying political and ideological pathologies that have crippled it, this is thoroughly delusional.

We watch nervously. Normality after a fashion will return, although much of that normality is the problem. We would do well to brace for the next episode, unless something important is learned from what we are living through. Past experience is, however, not encouraging.

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