South Africa is bleeding. Thirty years ago, the doomsayers were waiting for it to happen at any moment. The country’s different groups would turn on each other, they said. The slaughter would be unlike anything that had ever been witnessed. The infrastructure would be destroyed.
But it never happened. Instead, the world looked on dumbfounded as—in Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s immortal phrase—the “rainbow nation” was born.
Recently, South Africans across the country’s nine provinces and all over the world watched as the rainbow seemed to evaporate like the myth that the cynics and the skeptics have always claimed it was. Thousands of people descended on shopping centers, making off with everything from essential foodstuffs to luxury items. Entire shopping centers were burnt to the ground after looters ransacked them, before leaving with cases of alcohol in a country where the sale had been prohibited to stop the spread of the third wave of COVID-19 and prevent the compromised public health sector from being totally overwhelmed.
Instead, other parts of the public sector appeared totally overwhelmed; especially the police, who either stood by or weren’t on the scene. Nowhere was the paralysis more apparent, or the unfolding dystopia, than Monday night as President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on live TV while looters carried on regardless in real time on a small screen running within the same broadcast just off the president’s shoulder.
As the hours passed, it appeared as if the contagion was unstoppable; the poor of South Africa taking the opportunity to strike while they could, many of them young—no surprise in a country where youth unemployment is one of the highest on the globe at almost 75 percent.
But then something quintessentially South African happened. In the absence of obvious police intervention, communities started self-organizing, most notably in the most populous and richest province of Gauteng where people formed human chains around shopping centers to stop them from being trashed. 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 1980s, when the mobilization of the people internally was as great a weapon in the struggle against apartheid as the international isolation of the regime.
Was it a sign of a failed state that all of a sudden, the citizenry had to put themselves in the frontline where the thin blue line should have been, serving and protecting them? Was it a short step away from vigilantism? Possibly both, because our country has an awful history of each, but there were also the seeds of a new compact. As I wrote this, many of the same newly created organizations were hard at work cleaning up the mess that the criminals had caused. In many cases they were joined by other South Africans; white, colored and Indian, picking up brooms and getting to work in trashed township shopping centers—or if they couldn’t be there, giving money to help the needy and start the process of rebuilding.
When President Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Monday night he called on the country to respect the rule of law, but also to work together to stop the lawlessness and the looting. He urged everyone to rebuild not just what has been lost in the worst civil unrest since April 27, 1994, but to seize the opportunities that have been missed in the more than two and half decades since to create the better life for all that the African National Congress (ANC) so fervently promised and the rest of the country hoped for.
Ramaphosa was one of the key negotiators of our successful transition to democracy. He helped draft the acclaimed constitution that has guided us ever since. As the leader of the biggest trade union, he knows only too well the importance of getting everyone to buy in to a process. As an admitted attorney, he is exceptionally aware of the critical importance of the rule of law. Throughout this crisis, he has weathered storms of criticism in a land that once again has threatened to splinter to its constituent identities, for moving too slowly or for perennially seeking consensus. But the truth is he would be damned for doing the opposite, especially if the outcome was catastrophic.
Instead, he has sought to empower communities and call on other leaders to be part of the solution with him and his administration, by bringing the immediate crisis under control and then looking forward to what has to be done next. Part of that involves the legal system. Those who broke the law must be brought to book—and not just the looters, but the instigators who clearly wanted to stage a low scale insurrection as evidenced by obviously planned arson attacks on 35 trucks at a toll plaza on the main arterial route between Durban and the country’s economic capital, Johannesburg and the attacks on other critical installations like cell phone masts and a municipal water supply.
What happened this week 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: former President Jacob Zuma being jailed on a contempt charge that he caused himself, a cabal of politically connected crooks realizing that the tide was finally turning in favor 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.
As we move on from the wreckage of this week, we are faced with two certainties: that the upholding of the rule of law has never been more vital than it is now and that there is no time left to lose to address the structural inequalities that are only getting worse.
The political mafia who would subvert this country for their own ends and burn it to the ground to escape being held to account have to be arrested, tried and jailed. No individual nor group is more equal than any other in the eyes of the law and justice must be swift and seen to be done, to reassure us all of this fact.
Secondly, 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 to recapacitate and transform a public service that has become bloated, overpaid and inept. We have to create hope once again. In Africa, veld fires are 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.
In South Africa, the doomsday clock is always said to hover between quarter to and five to 12. There were times this week where the second hand seemed perilously close to the hour. Now though it is subsiding back to quarter to. This was an inflection point. The greatest in fact since the dawn of our democracy.
This week 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.
This week 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 week, this young country passed its greatest stress test actually with flying colors.
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.