From xenophobia to femicide, South Africa is burning
Over the past few days, South Africa’s major cities have burst into flames. This is not new.
Co-ordinated and sporadic acts of violence linked to service delivery protests, xenophobic sentiments and public outrage are part of the DNA of post-apartheid South African politics.
Many would rightly argue that violence, mob justice and collective mobilising to “cleanse” our towns and townships have an even longer history from the colonial period. Yet South Africa is on the cusp of uncertainty.
Let us attempt to contextualise and make sense of the waves of fear, desperation and grief that are both masked by and manifested in recent incidents.
There are three things that connect the looting and violence across Gauteng—xenophobia, rape and murder of women (femicide) and the continued protest action across the country.
First, we are witnessing the state at war with itself. A fractured ANC, and a decade of the state being appropriated for political purposes has left a deeply ruptured apparatus that politically and institutionally is incapable and unwilling of fulfilling its fundamental purpose.
The mayor of Johannesburg blames the national government while the police chief claims there is no xenophobia. The president speaks with a forked tongue, trying to calm investors and contain the dissent in his own party.
Opposition leaders score political points, playing to their base (white and middle-class fear or populist racism).
And civil society? Two decades of shrinking funding means those still standing are barely able to whisper. In any case, who is listening?
Second, if we look beyond the protests, the looting, rioting and destruction of property and the masses of unemployed who are turning on each other, we are confronted with a sense of desperation.
The unemployment rate stands at 29 per cent. That is more than 6.6 million people without a job.
Some 30 per cent South Africans have no access to running water, while 13 per cent live in informal dwellings. These are millions of people who do not have access to decent living. They are desperate.
On the other hand, there are some 2.5 million migrants in the country seeking protection and jobs.
Many struggle to obtain the legal documents that they need because Home Affairs has long become dysfunctional.
Even those who have visas and permits realise these hold no social currency in South Africa.
Like millions of poor citizens, migrants have to hustle daily for a living in the informal economy, or find ways to stay safe, send their kids to school and access services.
Migrant and local alike, South Africa is home to millions of people who have had enough; who are desperate and fed up because the elected government has made poor macroeconomic policy choices, and because it has preferred to line its own pockets, rather than do its job.
Finally, these two factors — a self-serving political elite and an angry population — have combined to create what we are witnessing today, the breakdown of law and order.
Hundreds of people burn and loot shops, because they know they will never get a job, and because some politicians scapegoat migrants for government’s failures.
The police watch as people loot and die in front of them, knowing they have neither the skills nor the muscle of a successful investigative or prosecutorial outfit that bring justice.
The homeless and the landless pay money to slum owners for a shack; for a fee under the table they are connected to the electricity and services they know they can never otherwise access.
Across from them, residents who have saved for years to buy property protest themselves, as their sense of security crumbles. The streets burn; we all become desperate.
Yet things can become worse. If the president is unable to firmly take control of his party, of the police and of the state, we all stand to lose much more.
Today, we turn on the migrants; tomorrow we will turn on each other. When the state fails, foreign capital flees, and the middle-class crumbles. And the poor.
South Africa faces a crisis and uncertainty and it needs a steady hand at the helm. The article first published by the Mail & Guardian