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Editorial: Unrest death count the highest in more than 180 years

Our history of conflict is one that won’t be confined to the past. For almost 200 years, we’ve had countless clashes where blood was spilled because of tribal conflicts, colonial expansion and, in latter years, the suppression of the “native”. 

As a country still young when compared to Europe or Asia, the conflicts and their rawness to South Africans is understandable. We are a nation still being forged, a tale that is still being told and the July violence that we’ve just been through is yet another significant milestone in the life of this country. 

We may want to quickly dismiss the arson and looting and move on, treating the damage as merely an economic sum. The South African Property Owners Association estimates the cost of the week-long unrest at about R50-billion, a significant enough setback not to be sniffed at for a country rebounding from the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. 

But the greater cost has to be the loss of more than 300 lives in violence that deserve a moniker of its own, maybe the “Zuma Protests” or the “Covid Protests”.

Looking through a long and sad list of all the massacres in this country since the start of the 1800s, what happened in the death count earlier this month ranks third only to the Weenen Massacre of 1838, where more than 500 people lost their lives. 

What happened in the streets of Durban, Phoenix and Soweto in the second week of July and in the days after ranks as our deadliest conflict in 183 years. 

Now that’s a bit of perspective that we’ve lacked as some of us laugh at memes of people stealing televisions too large for their getaway cars. 

Maybe there’s a lack of empathy with the people who lost their lives because of looting versus someone striking for wages in Marikana nine years ago or youth fighting for their rights in 1976. Also, we are in a pandemic, and deaths have become a norm with an average of 144 deaths a day since the end of March last year. 

But don’t let the deathly cloud wrought by the pandemic hide the deepening poverty in its wake that political opportunists and careerists have used as pawns to destabilise the country in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest. Someone has to be held accountable, and we need the protagonists to answer for the loss of life, the levels of which we haven’t seen in almost two centuries.

Exhausted as we may be from the many commissions that our democracy has undertaken in 27 years, we think this July — our winter of discontent — is deserving of its own. We hope it will delve into the relations between the state and the governing ANC and how those lines have blurred over the years. So much so, that many of its leaders would now encourage the most vulnerable people in our society to disregard a constitution that more than 200 years of conflict has forged. We need to hold the people who paid for the killings and looting accountable.

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