South Africa’s civil society sector has long cautioned that extreme inequality may have dire consequences. While the genesis of the vandalism and plunder can be found in protests against the 15-month imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, the rapid spread of the disregard for the law has been causally linked by the Dullah Omar Institute to growing economic difficulties affecting much of the population.
“We’ve seen people expressing their frustration completely because they don’t have anything to live on and they’re frustrated that the government has let them down,” says Ebenezer Durojaye, head of the socioeconomic rights project at the institute. “It’s connected to the standard of living conditions which people find themselves in. People have lost their jobs and livelihoods. And there is no hope for them to get anything.”
Earlier this month, under the umbrella of a coalition representing a number of civil society organisations, Durojaye co-wrote a statement condemning a recent progress report delivered to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).
As a member of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, South Africa has committed itself to protecting the socioeconomic rights of its citizens and preventing debilitating disparity. The covenant states that countries must use the “maximum of its available resources” to achieve this objective, “including, particularly, the adoption of legislative measures”.
The CESCR had, in 2018, criticised South Africa’s maiden periodical progress report. These remain unaddressed, the civil society coalition argued.
“By now the government should have taken some more concrete steps to address these issues,” said Durojaye. “We could say that what is happening might be connected to frustrations, existing poverty situations, the fact that Covid-19 has driven people more and more below the poverty line.”
In little over a year the pandemic has devastated the economy and the labour force. More than two million jobs were reported to have been shed during the months of the first lockdown last year. In the first quarter of 2021, Statistics South Africa reported that the unemployment rate has risen to 32.6%. Under the expanded definition, which includes discouraged workers, the number stands at 43.2%. Youth unemployment is at 74.7%.
“The underlying crises that have been growing in the past 10 years have remained unacknowledged despite very, very directive research that a number of organisations have been producing and presented to the state,” says Isobel Fyre, director at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute and another author of the CESCR statement. “Basically the state has just ignored statistics and qualitative research. To my mind, the president’s last two speeches completely ignored the promise of assistance in any way — either long-term or short-term. It is the pinnacle of the way in which the poor are excluded from allocations and decisions of priority in our country.”
In his address on Monday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the “opportunistic acts of criminality” that have caused the deaths of at least 45 people as of Tuesday evening. He confirmed the order he had given earlier in the day as commander-in-chief to send the South African National Defence Force into KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to assist law enforcement.
One common call-out of certain sectors of civil society has been for the president to reinstate the R350 grant that many South Africans came to rely on. Based on research by the University of Cape Town’s Development Policy Research Unit, for instance, the grant played an important role in reducing apathy in the job market. Recipients of the grant were 25 percentage points more likely to continue actively searching for employment, according to the report.
For Fyre, any solution would have to be far more systematic.
“We have a state that’s built on a very legalist notion of rule,” she says. “If you look at our budget, our three-year budget, they’ve designed it in such a way that nothing can really interrupt that. So even in the face of stimulus packages, which are top-ups announced by the president, you have the president promising this largesse and then you have treasury paving budget after budget still in the austerity paradigm.
“Last year the president spoke left and treasury spoke right. Now you see the president not promising anything at all, a very robotic announcement without offering any hope. It seems the technocrats have prevailed.”