The handling of the recent action of violence, looting, ‘insurrection’ and disruption of economic activities in South Africa raises serious questions of leadership in times of national crisis. To say SA lacks leadership is simplistic and just not factual. But there is a worrisome overlap of business interests with political interests that places the needs of ordinary citizens at risk. This is the recipe of a capital-driven democracy.
This void – or poor leadership propensity – is exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. This eruption of violence and destruction has had a major impact on the image of our country, the sense of political stability and just the desperation of poor people who are at the very sharp end of the effects of a national lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The harrowing images of a mother throwing her baby down from a burning building only to be caught and rescued by strangers, is a grim reminder of the depravity of poverty and its ability to remove one’s dignity. “It is expensive to be poor” said one of the social media users. And it is more so because the national lockdown in South Africa means that only a few of us can continue our lives as if COVID-19 is just an inconvenience, while to the ‘unwashed masses’, it is a major disruptor of everyday hustles and survival.
There are too many elements at play here – too many moving parts as it were – and most of the current affairs programs, reportage and news have been simplistic in their approach; and simply in search of sound bites. The root of the problem is much bigger than just the unhappiness that relates to the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. It is bigger than just the looting of shops and burning of trucks, or even the deployment of military personnel. In some ways, the problem is also much smaller than these compounded problems. It seems to me that the problem is balancing the dire needs of the poverty-stricken masses of South Africans, with the incontrollable or unsatisfiable demands of capital compounded by a State that is in bed with business and industry. This combination has been taken advantage of, by the criminal – and often disgruntled political – elements and figures that have a keen awareness of this apparent lack of strong political leadership.
Whether it was an attempt at an insurrection, rampant criminality, or desperate acts of poor people, is pure semantics. By this, I do not mean to diminish the importance of defining the situation of a few ago. It is this semantic bickering that does not address the root of the issue. And the issue is this: the continued lockdown of the country fuels all manner of opportunism (political, violent, criminal etc), but it also exacerbates the hunger of the poorest of the poor. A concerted, well-coordinated effort of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is the answer. Even this has been negatively impacted because arterial national roads were affected, major centres where people could be vaccinated were affected and most of all, the congregation of people in large numbers; to take advantage of the chaos, could spread more infections. The effect of these gatherings with the sole aim of ‘reclaiming’ some economic benefit by the poor in these desperate times, is going to catch up with us in the ensuing weeks – with a spike in infections. The poor see the rich going on with their lives, while they cannot even go anywhere to eke out a living for themselves. It is easy for the rich to isolate, but the poor have never isolated even in the absence of a global pandemic because of their living conditions. This kind of ‘reclamation of economics and livelihoods’ cannot be justified under any circumstances. It can only thrive as anarchy under poor or illegitimate leadership.
South Africa has been a model country for some semblance of democracy, potential prosperity, and political stability. This is what is required at this time. Because of the time we are in, political opportunism – where poor people can be easily mobilised into acts of crime and ‘revolution’ – is the real threat that crime intelligence should put a finger on. Many people have lost their lives – as much as 300 – in these past two weeks during these acts of violence and crime – that is, families have lost loved ones and in many cases breadwinners. This is 300 too many. Scores are now facing charges of theft, being accessories to crime and possession of stolen goods.
The restraint of the police and military personnel in dealing with the perpetrators is the only encouraging factor. So far, not one fatality has been reported to be result of excessive force by our police or soldiers. And if this had happened, it would put our political leadership in trouble. It would be perceived as brutality against the poor in defence of the property of the rich. It would take us back to the use of force against the miners of Marikana. I am thankful we did not get to this point. And I am convinced that this was part of the intention of this incitement of violence – to force the hand of the security forces to act violently so that the government of the day can be blamed, blemished and somewhat deligitimised.
When the poor start to ‘eat’ the rich, that is when we will realise that our country’s prosperity must reach all of us. This ‘othering’ of those ‘across the tracks’ is part of the reason of the ‘Phoenix Massacre’ where the slightly well-off Indian community squared off with the shack-dwelling, predominantly poor, black community in the same area.
In the violent and looting hysteria in Gauteng, the only shops that were not looted in shopping malls, were bookstores, but everything was destroyed in many commercial shopping centres. Food/groceries, furniture, appliances and all manner of stores were raided. Between Johannesburg and Durban, on the arterial N3 national road, over 20 trucks transporting commercial goods very important to the economy of the country and headed for the ports, were burnt down and the road blocked for days.
More than anything, I think this is the time to show a collective nationalism that has at its centre – the handling of COVID-19 and upliftment of the marginalised – so that we can all get back to ‘normal’. This idea of normalcy is a misnomer too because lives have not been normal in South Africa for a long time. The degrees and levels of poverty in South African cannot be considered normal under any circumstances. The new post-COVID-19 normal, must be one that ensures that South Africa’s prosperity and economic gains are open to all. COVID-19 has not been the great equaliser. Instead, it has widened the chasm between the different levels and spheres of our nation. The poor are the most affected. The middle class who lives from pay check to pay check are on the verge of poverty, while the rich live with COVID-19 with their privilege in tact and COVID-19 as a mere inconvenience to their daily lives.
My recent move to a low-cost neighbourhood after a long time of middle-income, suburban existence has given me fresh eyes to the real living conditions of the majority of SA’s population. While no amount of looting, stealing, anarchy can be justified by one’s poverty, there is no dignity in being poor. There is no honour in living on the breadline. There is no pride in telling your children to eat starch with gravy of last night’s meal simply because no one will see the contents of their stomachs. The depraved desperation of poverty is heart-wrenching, and our high-browed analyses should always take this into consideration.
We should be grateful that we did not live through a World War, famine and a global pandemic all rolled in one. The sporadic unrests, criminality and poor leadership in the middle of a pandemic form a recipe for disaster. This is time for unity, ubuntu and leadership (not only political) to ensure the well-being, prosperity and safety of each other.
First published in covidhqafricafrica.com