The world has been privy to scenes of looting, arson, blockading of roads, marching, and general unrest in two of South Africa’s biggest provinces — KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng — in the past two weeks. In the Western Cape, two rival taxi associations are at war over transport routes. More than 100,000 commuters from the townships served by these taxis have been left stranded and unable to get to work in the suburbs. The overall death toll is close to 300 and thousands of people have been injured. The army has been deployed to back up the police force to quell the unrest.
The violence in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng was triggered by the arrest of Jacob Zuma, whose nine-year rule as president ended in 2018 when he was ousted by the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Zuma had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle since he was a teenager and had been imprisoned on Robben Island for ten years by the apartheid government. He is currently being investigated for corruption during his presidential term and was arrested for contempt of court. He has a history of evading accountability and exempting himself from the law.
It has been 16 months since the country first went into one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. We are currently in the third week of a stricter lockdown in an attempt to control the highly transmissible Delta variant taking hold of the country (Gauteng is the epicenter of the resurgence). The protests are disastrous for the control of the virus — protesters are flouting preventative measures, interrupting the vaccine rollout, and making access to healthcare difficult.
While the protests may have been in response to the former president’s arrest, there are systemic reasons for the discontent that hark back to the apartheid era.
Racism is no longer legal but the structures still exist that create barriers along racial lines.
More than 50% of the population lives in poverty, and those affected are black people, women and children, and those living in rural areas. Unemployment amongst the 15- to 65-year-old group (two-thirds of which is below 34 years of age) is at 43%. According to the World Bank statistics for 2019, the youth unemployment rate is 58%, one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the legacies of apartheid that continue to impact the present, have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
The quality of public services in the townships which are almost exclusively black is in stark contrast to the more affluent suburbs. Most people in South Africa have no access to electricity and running water. Millions of people are landless and the education system is failing most South Africans. Schools are understaffed and overcrowded making social distancing difficult. The learning losses due to school closures during the pandemic for children in poorly serviced schools have been worsened by the lack of resources to learn from home.
The government has failed to reduce poverty, to deliver basic services like healthcare and sanitation and the same people who suffered during apartheid continue to do so now. I find it heartbreaking to attempt to reconcile the current situation with the hopes and dreams of a free country that we had when we went to the polls for the first democratic elections in 1994. In that election, 22.7 million people voted (86% of the registered voters) for the vision of a country that would be equal, non-racial, and where all would be viewed as human.
The miracle of the relatively peaceful transition from the oppression of apartheid to a constitutional democracy was held up to the world as an example of what was possible. Reconciliation and nation-building were chosen above civil war, hatred and revenge. Nelson Mandela’s government promised a better life for all. Twenty-seven years later the majority of people are still waiting.
Perhaps that is where we have gone wrong. We were too eager to give up our power and placed too much trust in the state institutions. We underestimated the need to nurture the hard-fought-for democracy, failing to hold the government and public administration accountable. Perhaps we were wary of the decades-long struggle. It was the ordinary citizens of this country, united in civic organisations, who brought about the end of apartheid. Hundreds of national, regional, and local organisations joined together to oppose the control of the apartheid state and to promote the interests of their communities. Civics were organised from the bottom up and tackled bread and butter issues like rent, municipal services, public transport, education, and healthcare. Conscientious objectors opposed military conscription, student leaders organised mass protests and boycotts, and civics sort to improve the quality of life for all.
Most telling of the relinquished power is the voter turnout pattern in the last election in 2019. At 46.7% of registered voters, it was amongst the lowest in the world. Participatory governance broadens and deepens democracy by expanding the range of citizens engaged in making or influencing government decisions. Civil society and government need to cooperate to bring about the vision embraced by the entire society. Nelson Mandela’s words continue to resonate:
“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
The struggle continues.