/ 22 July 2021

Editorial: Last week’s unrest: Who is left to clean up the mess?

Editorial Mg
(Mail & Guardian)

For a decade, the South African story has been one muddied by changes in the global economy that, in the main, went against emerging market countries, particularly those blessed with commodities. 

Our political class, unfortunately, has not been one to read the tea leaves. In the years of slow growth and, in turn, a shrinking fiscus, our politics has centred on a battle over who controls the purse strings, instead of growing the purse. It has been a common ailment in the emerging world, as evidenced by instability that has dogged countries such as Brazil and Chile. 

Last week may stand out as our most recent memory of the effects of our socioeconomic struggles over the past 10 years, but we’ve had quite a few warnings of the boiling frustrations. Service delivery protests have become an everyday experience, never mind the Marikana tragedy of 2012. 

What has become increasingly clear is that, in the aftermath of these events, it’s the everyday South African who is left to make sense of what’s taken place — and begin the cleaning up. Among our political class, there’s been little in the way of accountability.

Soon after the looting and devastation of the past week ended, news feeds and social media were flooded with scenes of ordinary people heading out with rubbish bags and brooms to clear up the mess left behind.

This is the South Africa I signed up for” is the name of one of these campaigns; #RebuildSouthAfrica was a popular hashtag. The campaigns gained momentum as, once again, people of all races, religions, ages and whatever other chasms some like to think separate us, came together to sort out the devastation that can largely be laid at the doorstep of our government.

During the riots, it was communities who defended themselves when the police stood by; it was poor communities who rounded up the stolen goods and took the guilty to task; it was community members who scolded, encouraged, swept and tried to see the bright side.

There were the inevitable humorous memes and jokes and uplifting songs.

The government knows that this is what South Africans do. We didn’t need the “Thuma Mina” speech — a lot of us have been doing that for years. 

This week, ANC stalwart Mathews Phosa wrote for us about words politicians like to throw around — he focused on accountability. He said the ANC has blood on its hands and heads should roll.

But most citizens will probably sigh, roll their eyes and get back to #rebuilding their lives because when does our government ever take responsibility?

Businesses and taxpayers have to hand over a whack to the government each month, but then also have to pay for their own security, their own medical aid, road tolls, a premium on school fees if they want their children to have a decent education, bottled water, boreholes, generators and give to all those hungry souls at the robots and on every street corner.

Those poor and vulnerable people, who should be benefiting from the tax of those more fortunate and who keep being promised a rainbow and a new dawn, are still waiting patiently; still giving those in power the benefit of the doubt. 

But when there is a crisis like this, who gets called in to help and give even more? The people of South Africa. The government knows we will.