Politicians should fear more unrest

It is almost impossible to regard the scenes in Tembisa this week without feeling a knot in your stomach. That is the feeling of history repeating itself. 

Images of the shellshocked township, east of Johannesburg, were all too similar to those the country saw just over a year ago, when riots tore through the country’s economic centres. 

The discontent that boiled over in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng has only cooled to a simmer.  

Since July 2021, many have warned that it would take the smallest spark to inflame those tensions again. Some of the conditions that led to last year’s upheaval have receded. 

Last month the last reminders of Covid-19 were done away with and the country’s economy has started to show signs of recovery. Unemployment, although still high, has shown signs of retreat from the record levels endured during the pandemic. 

But other pressures, such as the cost of living crisis, have emerged. And then there are the more stubborn socioeconomic conditions that now seem impossible to escape — the inadequate provision of basic services, load-shedding, corruption and gruesome acts of violence that have left far too many living in fear. Those in charge cannot even figure out how to keep distributing the R350 grant, which was reinstated to temper the rage that swelled last July.

As all these conditions persist, the country’s leaders seem to be at a loss when they discuss how best to ensure their party holds onto power. 

There is only so much people can take.

It is no wonder then that Tembisa’s residents, faced, like many of us, with prohibitively high utility bills, have reached the end of their tether. 

Without some sort of political upheaval, South Africans are faced with the prospect that every winter from here on out will be even harsher than the last. Electricity and food prices will continue to climb, as they have done for years. This comes as too many already don’t have the money to warm their homes and fill their plates.

The question is whether those in power will also regard this week’s violence with knots in their stomachs and see it for what it really is — a threat to the current regime.

Just last month, Sri Lankans forced their president to flee the country after he failed to arrest the economic collapse that led to the total failure of the state. Although South Africans are well known for taking it on the chin, our country’s leaders would have to be completely out of touch not to fear a similar fate.

Meanwhile, there are those who won’t let this crisis go to waste. Some of them will be populists, hoping to spread more hate or steal more money. 

But others will be doing the hard work of putting their communities, fractured by deep resentments, back together and preparing to get on the other side of history.

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