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Don’t overlook the deeper roots behind the violence and looting in South Africa

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REPORTED BY: Eusebius McKaiser – He is a political analyst, author and broadcaster based in Johannesburg.

Over the past few days, scenes of looting and violent protests have emerged from South Africa following the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma. Yet it is a mistake to interpret what is unfolding as a sign of massive political support for Zuma. It is also an error to see the gross acts of criminality and theft as inexplicable.

On the contrary, the scenes of violent destruction playing out in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are the logical and foreseeable consequences of the moral decline, and technocratic failure, of the African National Congress-run state. These deeper roots of this week’s violence should not be obscured with hasty moralizing about the antisocial behavior of people living on the margins of South African society.

Zuma is serving a 15-month jail sentence handed down from the constitutional court — South Africa’s highest — for contempt of court after he willfully ignored an order to answer questions before a judicial commission of inquiry tasked with discovering truths about years of state corruption. Shortly after Zuma’s committal to prison last Wednesday, social media platforms were abuzz with demands by nameless and faceless voices that he be freed or else there would be protests.

That is the proximate cause of long-haul trucks then being torched in KwaZulu-Natal, major roads being blocked, and the wanton looting of shopping malls and violent destruction of property. It quickly spread to Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland. At least 72 people have died, scores were injured, and billions of rands’ worth of destruction have been inflicted.

Even the rollout of covid-19 vaccines had been disrupted, as many health-care workers are afraid to go to work; many venues dispensing vaccines closed their doors for fear of being looted. In some hospitals, oxygen shortages occurred because road closures made it impossible for oxygen to be delivered.

South Africa is therefore experiencing a serious economic, political and compounded public health crisis. But the looting and protests are indicative of the failure of political leadership and an ANC government no longer fit for purpose. The long-ruling ANC has been too busy with internecine factional battles — including between Zuma and current President Cyril Ramaphosa — and looting from the state itself to have time to keep an eye on society, let alone govern properly.

So far, policing has been massively ineffective and looters undeterred. Corruption within the state intelligence services, and the politicization of intelligence structures, over many years, means the police have inadequate support from intelligence agents to anticipate the trajectories of violence and quell it all swiftly. Now the army has been deployed to assist the police — a sign of a state without capacity to keep citizens safe using regular policing mechanisms.

Yet the dominant narrative focusing on rampant crime is an oversight. More than 74 percent of youths under age 25 are jobless, while 43.2 percent of the entire population of potential workers do not have a job. Half of South Africans are chronically poor. And, most neglected of all, the levels of asset and income inequality make this country one of the most economically unjust societies on Earth, with a thin group of wealthy folks at the top, a precarious middle class (of sorts), and a large poor, asset-less base.

Thus, the immediate spark for this instability might have been Zuma’s imprisonment. But Zuma is ultimately a spent political force. There is a more human factor at play here.

Millions of black South Africans living under conditions of poverty do not have a stake in Nelson Mandela’s nominally free South Africa. They have no reason to be excited about waking up tomorrow. They have dim prospects of self-actualization. They do not stand to lose reputations or careers if they are found guilty of public violence and theft, because you can only lose that which you have. They lack hope and confidence in the government, because the political investment in the ANC since 1994 has not delivered on its much-touted political slogan of “A Better Life for All.”

Instead, the ANC has allowed for grand-scale theft from public coffers — precisely why Zuma is evading accountability. Inequality is so deep that it correlates with gratuitous violence. Whatever the narrow intentions of the “Free Zuma” goons who fomented the initial torching of trucks, many of those now on the streets are clearly taking direct aim at a state — and society — that had abandoned and rendered them invisible.

That does not mean government should not secure the state and arrest the lawless. It should. That is the first political duty of all states. But finger-wagging in the direction of looters will not solve the problem. The solution will be found in answering two questions not being posed at present: What will South Africans do to eliminate all forms of inequality? And how long will South African voters continue to reward an ANC government that is not responsive to their needs?

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