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Editorial: This week has been precedent-setting

For an everyday South African, the only point at which they interact with the state is at the municipal level or every other five years, when there are national or local elections. Judging by the poor report cards on the performance of the 257 municipalities spread across the country, it’s not a healthy relationship. Citizens certainly can’t be happy with unemployment at record highs and what was a moribund economy before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic last March.

Now imagine just for a second, this porous relationship between the state and anyone of the four-million South Africans that live in informal settlements across the country. Some 63% of South Africans are urbanised, and that figure is only set to explode in years to come with forecasts that eight in ten will live in urban environments by 2050.

If an immediate example of a lack of service delivery that pops up in the mind of a middle-class citizen is an unrepaired pothole, what is their example today and tomorrow? 

A lack of proper running water and sanitation, healthcare, schooling, not to mention electricity supply, where the many can’t afford tariffs that have skyrocketed over the past decade as the country has funded a badly executed Eskom expansion project.

In light of this, just how invested is this increasingly urbanised population in the status quo as it stands, even though the stores and the malls looted this week provide some level of employment? They make for perfect fodder for political opportunists looking to stoke the flames of discontent. The perfect pawns for a grand political conspiracy, if that’s in the end the tale of the tape.

What has happened in our country is precedent-setting. It will be hard to turn back the clock and get people to once again respect authority and the rule of law. The looting may have abated for now but the damage has been done. Many have seen the scenes of the police, soldiers and politicians — so-called leaders — watching as looting happened in front of their eyes. Perhaps the fear of another Marikana is unpalatable, and it should be, especially as its young women and children who’d be in the crossfires this time around.

We have seen how buildings, livelihoods, malls and anything that stands for economic activity were looted, wrecked and burned with law enforcement unable to stop it. 

An example was set for the disregard for the rule of law as former president Jacob Zuma attacked judges and our judiciary with his customary giggle. We saw how he disrespected the law and ran amok when he was told he would be imprisoned for 15 months for not respecting a Constitutional Court sanction. Then his children and allies took to social media and communication platforms to tell his supporters to rally and shut down South Africa once he was escorted to Escourt’s correctional facility. 

Some of our erstwhile politicians, who one hopes will not shine in history books yet to be written, are calling for him to be released. They seek to ride the tiger while its eyes are distracted by what lays before it: a scared and shell-shocked nation.

So what does the looting or the protests in the face of deep poverty mean for our democracy? 

The ideal we have always held up is that citizens can change their reality by speaking at the polls. Perhaps this week demonstrates that more and more people are losing faith in that ideal. 

For a developing nation such as ours, we always have to ensure that the most marginalised among us garner some sort of dividend in the journey towards a “better life for all”. There’s been little upside for well over a decade, and the pressures on the working elements of the state have grown exponentially in that time. Broken municipalities have only sunk deeper into a state of disrepair, souring relations between state and citizenry.

The panacea to our ailments is a functioning state. But the custodian is not fit to govern; nor is the opposition bench. Some countries have found themselves at this position, a case in point being Italy, whose coalition politics have ground the country to standstill. To move forward, they’ve had to hand over sovereignty to a technocrat in former European Central Banker, Mario Draghi. We are still some seasons away from coming to that solution.

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