Over the past few days South Africa’s major cities have burst into flames. This is not new. Co-ordinated and sporadic acts of violence linked to service delivery protests, xenophobic sentiments and public outrage are part of the DNA of post-apartheid South African politics. Many would rightly argue that violence, mob justice and collective mobilising to “cleanse” our towns and townships have an even longer history from the colonial period.
Yet South Africa is on the cusp of uncertainty. Let us attempt to contextualise and make sense of the waves of fear, desperation and grief that are both masked by and manifested in recent event. There are three things that connect the looting and violence across Gauteng (xenophobia), the rape and murder of women (femicide) and the continued protest action across the country (most recently, Lenasia South, Tshwane, and, earlier, Durban).
First, we are witnessing the state at war with itself. A fractured ANC, and a decade of the state being appropriated for political purposes, has left a deeply ruptured apparatus that politically and institutionally is incapable and unwilling of fulfilling its fundamental purpose: serving its people through good governance and quality services.
The mayor of Johannesburg blames the national government; the police chief claims there is no xenophobia. The president speaks with a forked tongue, trying to calm investors and contain the dissent in his own party. Opposition leaders score political points, playing to their base (white and middle-class fear or populist racism). And civil society? Two decades of shrinking funding means that those that are still standing are barely able to whisper. In any case, who is listening?
Second, if we look beyond the protests, the looting, the rioting and destruction of property; if we take a moment to understand the informal traders who were rounded by city police some weeks ago in central Johannesburg; the working-class land owners in Lenasia South who are fed up with land invasions; the masses of unemployed who are turning on each other, we are confronted with a sense of desperation.
We know the figures: a 29% unemployment rate, that is more than 6.6-million people without a job; 30% of South Africans have no access to running water; 13% live in informal dwellings. These are millions of people who do not have access to decent living. They are desperate.
On the other hand, there are some 2.5-million migrants in the country seeking protection and jobs. Many struggle to obtain the legal documents that they need because Home Affairs has long become dysfunctional. Even those who have visas and permits realise that these hold no social currency in South Africa. Like millions of poor South Africans, migrants have to hustle daily for a living in the informal economy, or find ways to stay safe, send their kids to school and access services.
Migrant and local alike, South Africa is home to millions of people who have had enough; who are desperate and fed up because the elected government has made poor macroeconomic policy choices, and because it has preferred to line its own pockets, rather than do its job.
Finally, these two factors — a self-serving political elite and an angry population — have combined to create what we are witnessing today, the breakdown of law and order. A state institution hires a convicted criminal who will go on to rape and kill an innocent woman; the angry community turns to mob justice, burning down his suspected home because they know that the police cannot be relied on. Hundreds of people burn and loot shops, because they know they will never get a job, and because some politicians scapegoat migrants for government’s failures.
The police watch as people loot and die in front of them, knowing they have neither the skills nor the muscle of a successful investigative or prosecutorial outfit that bring justice. The homeless and the landless pay money to slum owners for a shack; for a fee under the table they are connected to the electricity and services they know they can never otherwise access. Across from them, residents who have saved for years to buy property protest themselves, as their sense of security crumbles. The streets burn; we all become more desperate.
Yet things can become worse still. If the president is unable to firmly take control of his party, of the police and of the state, we all stand to lose much more. Today we turn on the migrants; tomorrow we will turn on each other. When the state fails, foreign capital flees, and the middle-class crumbles. And the poor.
As always, it is the poor who will suffer the most. Unable to fight or flee, a failed state will result in the evaporation of social security safety nets. South Africa faces a crisis and uncertainty and it needs a steady hand at the helm.
Dr Zaheera Jinnah is a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society. These are her own views.