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South Africa is on the brink For the first time, people appear afraid for the future

South Africans are more scared than they've been for years. Credit: James Oatway/Getty Images

South Africans are more scared than they've been for years. Credit: James Oatway/Getty Images


July 15, 2021   6 mins

The province of my birth is burning. Looters, using the excuse of the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma, have laid an unimpeded trail of violence, arson, assault and damage across KwaZulu Natal, traditional home of the Zulu people.

Armed volunteers mount barricades at the entrances to my village while youngsters on trail bikes scout through the perimeter cane fields. There is no available food or fuel and the chat groups buzz with an incessant flood of posts about destroyed buildings, burnt cars and roaming mobs. The State is entirely absent.

For the first time, ordinary South Africans, bomb-proofed through decades of tumult, appear afraid for the future.

The democracy bought into existence 27 years ago after a negotiated truce between armed contestants, only some of whom were white, is facing its biggest challenge. Now it is not only the disgraced Zuma that is in the dock. It is also the current President, Cyril Ramaphosa.

The immediate spark for the conflagration was when, on 29 June this year, former President Jacob Zuma was ordered to serve 15 months in prison for refusing to appear before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture — ironically a commission appointed by Zuma himself to investigate allegations of widespread corruption.

The response from political and even criminal forces, some of their leaders once office-bearers in the ruling African National Congress, was swift. They have mustered under the banner of something called Radical Economic Transformation which translates in method to the violent appropriation of wealth and in consequence to utter desolation. It is a more ambitious form of looting than the one currently on our television screens.

The incumbent, President Cyril Ramaphosa, was widely hailed on his election as leader of the African National Congress in 2017 as the saviour of the nation, a Mr Fix It Extraordinary with a luminary history in the trade unions, business and the negotiations that led to political emancipation. His promises of a New Dawn struck a resonance with a public desperately tired of the collapse in public morality and the accelerating race towards a failed state. Tragically, it has thus far proven a false dawn. The public anger is now palpable and dangerous.

I knew Cyril Ramaphosa when he was Chairman of the publishing company in which I was Editor and later Publisher of the South African Sunday Times, then the largest circulation newspaper in the country. I believe him to be an honourable and decent man, but not an effective one. He showed an almost obsessive desire to avoid confrontation, a preference for working through third parties and, later, a fierce aversion to taking tough decisions if it would affect party unity. More than once he privately confessed that he was a master at dancing on eggshells.

The hard decisions, like weeding out the criminals in his party, were outsourced to the Courts, the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, the media or political hitmen in his own party. Thus, he retained a serene, surreal aloofness amid the growing signs of chaos, division and policy-failure around him, restricting himself largely to sepulchral public utterances on safe-zone topics like gender-based violence, Smart Cities, Covid-19 and platitudinous statements of good intent. This rule-by-remote has born a bitter fruit.

Shortly after my appointment as Editor of the Sunday Times in 1996, I made a point of engaging the newly-elected ministers in the ANC Government. Invariably I was asked what I perceived to be the greatest challenges facing the infant government. Always I replied: the loss of the nation’s precious skills and investment resources. The caution was obviously lost in the translation.

Under the guise of redistributive economic programmes, the ANC ushered in the policy of Black Economic Empowerment. Whatever its good intentions, it turned into a one-way flow of money extorted with state sanction from private or public purses into the hands of a monstrously avaricious new elite. The proceeds were instantly monetised and consumed in a style that would put a Byzantine court to shame. This has not gone unnoticed by the people burning the malls today.

To gain control of the state, the ANC followed a policy of “cadre deployment” of party faithful to occupy every level of government. Unable to even manage its own party affairs, they had no hope of managing a modern state. Everywhere there was dysfunction, collapse and corruption, the burden again borne most heavily by the poor. Across the spectrum, the internal party factionalism was replicated by the “deployees” in the State Departments.

The amounts stolen in the so-called State Capture project is dwarfed by the loss of wealth, tax, opportunity and confidence caused by the twin policies of black empowerment and cadre deployment, the core enablers of State Capture. Yet a generation after political emancipation, President Ramaphosa still refuses to renounce or even modify either policy. That has been his first great lost opportunity.

The second was not to appeal over the heads of his own party to the country for support for a genuinely reformist programme when elected in 2017. Granted, his election as leader of the ANC was a near-run thing and to this day there persists the claims by his opponents that he bribed his way to victory in the party’s elective conference.

Others suggested that he needed time to win over his suspicious caucus, many members with bank accounts that could hardly bear forensic scrutiny; more time to dance on eggshells. Perhaps, but the delay has proved mortally damaging to the nation

The Commission of Inquiry into State Capture under Deputy Judge President Raymond Zondo has ploughed its way through thousands of hours of testimony in its 38-month existence, minutely confirming the media’s decade-long reporting about how bad things really were during the Zuma years. If this was intended to placate the public, it did not.

The endless delays in commencing criminal procedures because of the devastation of the criminal justice system by a toxic combination of “cadre deployment” and criminal intent, further eroded confidence. Thirty or so good investigators, auditors and prosecutors with support staff, immediately hired from the private sector or from abroad, would have done what the Zondo Commission could not do: put the culprits in prison quickly and at a fraction of the cost
 but that would have required a hard decision from President Ramaphosa.

Enthralled by the Soprano-style tale of warring ANC factions daily playing out in the Zondo Commission, the public easily forgot to ask the big question: how well was President Ramaphosa governing?

The answer: badly, very badly.

He has failed to repudiate any of his predecessors disastrous policies: seizure of land without compensation; the Government’s land redistribution policy which has seen productivity of transferred land fall by 87%; the free tertiary education policy which has turned once great universities into day-care centres for uneducated young people; the highly restrictive labour policies or the huge state social welfare and public service bills. All of this compounded by a mismanaged and inappropriate State response to the various recent coronavirus outbreaks. Serial lockdowns have massively affected employment and driven urban and rural poverty, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

The consequence has been stuttering economic growth and the highest youth unemployment rate in the country’s history, many of the unemployed now playing cameo roles on our television screens as the malls burn. No society can or will endure such casually-inflicted pain.

But perhaps the worst consequence of Ramaphosa’s rule-by-remote, and expulsion-by-commission, has been the creation of space for his opponents to mobilise, mainly in their heartland, the province of KwaZulu Natal, from whence Jacob Zuma and many supporters hail, where his main ethnic power base lies (although by no means do all Zulus support Zuma) and where my family has lived for five generations. Throw in legions of unemployed and one has a volatile mix.

The violence has completely overwhelmed an already incompetent police force: there have even been instances of local communities supporting recently arrived reinforcements with food and munitions because they arrived so unprepared.

For years the ANC-controlled province, often cruelly dubbed the Sicily of South Africa, has been the site of growing insurrectionary activity: hijacking of transport on main routes, seizure of schools and universities, xenophobic outbreaks, sabotage of municipal infrastructure, mafia-style blackmailing of construction companies, violent factional wars by ANC claimants to office, and wholesale corruption in public affairs (even as Zuma was entering incarceration, the pro-Zuma mayor of the province’s largest city was facing charges of corruption, along with 16 councillors). The perpetrators have acted with impunity and a growing boldness presaging today’s crisis.

All of this has been compounded by a hiatus of authority in the Zulu Royal Family, traditionally a source of stability in the province’s rural areas, albeit a prickly one. The recent death of King Goodwill Zwelithini has brought a disputed succession and a fracturing of loyalties.

In short, the province is destabilised and trapped in a classic first phase of revolution, driven by what appears to be a determined yet still shadowy alliance of usurped politicians and opportunistic criminals. In the frame right now for being the instigators are renegade former — and possibly current — elements of the State Security Agency, which during Zuma’s years became a virtual in-house close protection unit to serve his personal and nefarious interests. Army and police loyalties are still unclear.

President Ramaphosa’s response to all this growing chaos through the months has been a Herculean detachment, punctuated by a few anodyne homilies, not unlike his unctuous and comfortless national television address on Monday night.

The insurrection will no doubt be suppressed, my province will return to its fraught peace but the damage to South Africa and the country will be lasting. This province, certainly, will never forgive President Ramaphosa for sacrificing it on the altar of his own weakness and unpreparedness.

And the bigger question will remain: will the Dancer on Eggshells see the latest outbreak of insurrectionary and criminal violence as a reason for another instinctive compromise? Or will he see it as an invocation to move forward with a bold programme of renewal which must inevitably include splitting his party, dumping many of its discredited and failed policies, and taking all necessary measures to return the country to stability. Those are essential precondition for progress. It is not looking hopeful.


Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.


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Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Growing up in Melbourne in the 1970s I only ever knew one South African. Now I know heaps of South Africans here from many walks of life (and, yes, they are white). By way of conversation I used to ask them why they came to Australia, but now I don’t bother because it became a bit of a downer when they had to admit almost sotto voce that it was the crime. Not sure why they looked so sheepish; I mean, we’re here because of the crime too.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

Nice touch Tony from here in WA.

Mark Falcoff
Mark Falcoff
2 years ago

All of this was entirely predictable. One needed only to look at the case of nearby Zimbabwe. But we were constantly told by American and European liberals, “South Africa will be different.” I didn’t believe it and the evidence now is clear to all.

pdrodolf
pdrodolf
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Falcoff

This was going to be my comment almost to the word. We now have examples of this in the US cities too…….Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore.

Paul Ansell
Paul Ansell
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Falcoff

Its all about accountability to the people…….there is none and the various Western groups that regularly attacked Ian Smith are silent on Robert Mugabes atrocities……..
South Africa…no different…I watched a podcast by a Black American guy who said simply that if they can’t do better than this, give the country back to the Boers…….

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Africa suffered two tragedies in the 19th and 20th century. The first was colonialism, the second was decolonisation. It’s arguable, that the second of these, will ultimately prove to be the greater tragedy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I watched a youtube on Gold mining internationally as it relates to investing in Mining companies. As such a huge amount of mining takes place in New Guinea, Congo, Tanzania, Kazakhstan, Chile, and every where else, much Mine pricing is based on Political risk first. mineral resources second, for good reason.
What surprised me was the guy talking of SA gold mines, and the issues. He said they were much outdated as maintaining employment levels was too politically important to replace low paid, low skilled, workers with new equipment and higher skilled, which would pay off well in income for the mine. That the mines had had no capital investment flowing in for a very long time as it was all siphoned off (Mines take constant investment to keep profitable, or you just get the easy stuff and the rest becomes unprofitable)

That this will mean a much greater loss of income downstream to the mining sector did not matter as long term money was not the driving force, but immediate money and jobs. The article mentions an 87% fall off in farm production with land re-distribution. Maybe CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Guardian, NY Times, could do some articles on this. If anything is to be done, rather than a collapse, early is much better than later. But I guess, as the inefficient labour in the Gold Mines cannot be updated because of Political insanity – Politically Correct Insanity will stop the Liberal/Left media from covering this self destructive situation.

Mike K
Mike K
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

there is no chance of the stupid, biased and moribund Bbc covering this disintegration. They totally lost interest once Whitey got booted out.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Some colonialism was tragic – Leopold in the Congo, for instance; much was indifferent and a proportion was beneficial.
Partly it depended on the compatibility of the Imperial with the native culture – sophisticated India meshed easily with sophisticated Britain, whereas many African societies were tribal, nomadic and wholly detached from European activity.
More broadly, the colonies improved with time. The regimes of the 1950s were more enlightened and careful than those of the thirties, which were better than those of the 1910s which had advanced considerably from the original approaches – and rarely if ever were the European empires as ruthlessly oppressive as their Islamic predecessors.
Moreover, it is a matter of record that both Whitehall and the Quai had plans for decolonisation, established between the wars and intended to take effect from the 1980s. And where Britain and France led, the other imperial powers would follow.
Compare this: a patchy tableau of general progress, blotted here and there with sometimes terrible crimes: with decolonisation: a sorry tale of general collapse, of missed opportunities and repeated regression, and your doubt is answered. Decolonisation was worse, mainly because premature.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Zimbabwe and RSA did wait till the 1980s, which has meant they have done better just how exactly?
There is the Darwinian proposition that impoverished and fertile populations will prevail demographically over ones that are rich and altruistic with low fertility though, so it does make sense that way.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Leaving a job half-done always creates a situation far worse than if the job had never been started in the first place. Certainly, in the northern half of sub-Saharan Africa at least there were relatively strong and stable empires/nations/counties which had nascent relations with the European powers and, left alone, might have developed into strong and happy communities. And yes, the Europeans destroyed all that. Then they made it worse by clearing out before they’d created anything worthwhile which was capable of replacing those empires.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

I agree this would have been interesting, but it’s hard to see how the engagement with technological or institutional modernity would have taken place without some population interpenetration.

Ron Bo
Ron Bo
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

It’s interesting that colonialism has had a positive impact on the Anglosphere.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

I met a lovely South African woman in London, applying at the time to live permanently here. “Is the crime very bad?” I asked her. “Well, I was told never to stop if another car hit mine, because there was a good chance I’d be raped or killed.”

Good God, I said. Couldn’t you keep a gun in the car?

No, she replied, because any staff in your house report such things to local gangs and you are then targeted for the weapon, raped etc.

Since then, I’ve travelled to Durban where beautiful white beaches were deserted. “Why is no one out there?” I asked my driver. “Oh, you can be seen from a long way off, so criminals would target you.”

In Johannesburg and Capetown, I saw the endless private security and armed response signs, with every single house in a nice street behind spikes and barbed wire.

SA is an incredibly beautiful place. But I couldn’t live there – and I certainly couldn’t have daughters or a wife with me. It’s a damned shame, it really is.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

My impression living in South Africa for 4 years was that it was a powder keg on every level: socially, economically, racially.
60%of the population is unemployed and unemployable: in part this is a legacy of the Apartheid government’s education policy, but also the ANC’s failure to build educational infrastructure and provide good teachers, instead, relying on quota systems to push unqualified candidates (or ANC cronies) into industrial positions.
It’s difficult to see how this will play out well with this 60% unemployable demographic growing year by year, neither benefiting from, nor contributing to, the economy.
Instead, ever higher premiums will be paid to the few skilled people who remain, further fuelling racial and social rage, and likely driving further political opportunism in targeting the few productive people in the economy.
I was pleased to get out when I did.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Government is loot and plunder. That is all.
The only question is how much of the economy it loots and plunders. In the US, it loots about 35 percent of GDP. In the UK, closer to 40 percent of GDP.
But when it gets closer to 100 percent, then you got trouble, right here in River City.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Trouble with a capital T – which rhymes with P and stands for Pool.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

What?

Brian Cashman
Brian Cashman
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s a line from a song sung by Robert Preston in the musical The Music Man.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

The UK in 30 years time sadly

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
2 years ago

My wife’s parents lived in apartheid South Africa. Her Dad was a doctor. Life was peaceful and law and order prevailed. Of course apartheid was indefensible but the alternative seems to be a disaster. Thanks for explaining why.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Robin Bury

Not sure the case for apartheid ever got much of a hearing in the Western press at the time. The fact that the alternative would be and has been worse has got to be some sort of argument in its favour though, hasn’t it?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

The ANC government spends more time faction fighting than actually governing. To many they are still the liberation heroes. Unfortunately these heroes had feet of clay, have no integrity and started to loot from top down like they were in a candy shop. The tenderpreneur was a valid job description.
Then along came Zuma (a psychopath – just do Hare’s 20 questions on him) who hollowed out the government and SOEs and stuffed them with his deployees and the feeding frenzy went rampant. Despite what has happened I am delighted that he is behind bars.
The rioting has been co-ordinated by factional crooks, but it has been exacerbated by Covid lockdown and resultant desperation. Exactly what I have been loudly saying since March 2020. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg worldwide – you always see effects of ridiculous policies playing out first in economies with no fat.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

SOE = state owned enterprise (I think – )

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Yes
.

John McGibbon
John McGibbon
2 years ago

The early part of this piece about corruption, state capture and henchmen being appointed to state bodies reminded me of Scotland under the nationalists, similarly the reelection of the same party despite its abject failures.
So looking forward, South Africa becomes the new Zimbabwe, and Scotland the new South Africa.

Paul Ansell
Paul Ansell
2 years ago

What did the ANC think would happen when it told its supporters to boycott schooling …. great pictures for the Western media but what did it mean for the kids who then grew up to be unemployable ? we are seeing the results now. It was true that the standards were not the same between white and black, but some education must have been better than none….
Also, talking to various South African friends, it is fairly clear that what the author of this piece has said is true. Successive Govts have treated the state assets as their own private pension funds…..with little or no accountability to the people.
Funny how our media and various Union groups were all for attacking the old Apartheid Govt for its behaviour to the majority Bantu population, but is mysteriously silent on the excesses and rampant corruption in the ANC……….and the betrayal of all South Africans….

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

So what about USA and UK? What does this mean? Nothing? or Something?
We will not hold our breaths waiting for an article addressing those.

Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago

Apartheid is indefensible. Thanks to it the social-economic conditions of the black majority were worsened. Just to make it clear where I stand. What did you all expect? Elect the same party during 27 years always with about 2 thirds majorities no matter how bad and incompetent they are, that’s the expected outcome. What’s the incentive to work better? Even in Sweden, the results would be bad.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

Apartheid is indefensible. Thanks to it the social-economic conditions of the black majority were worsened.

Is that actually true?
What was crime like under apartheid? How have the social-economic conditions of the black majority improved since it ended?

Ron Bo
Ron Bo
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

World’s first heart transplant.1968 in apartheid SA.
I could be wrong but the Zulu population increased signifanctly from 1900 onwards.
Due in no small part to efficient farming methods of settlers.

Ned DeLorme
Ned DeLorme
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

And apparently 27 years of no Apartheid has worked well? Sure, let’s blame the victims instead of the criminals. See Zimbabwe. Once you lose the rule of law your country/civilization is finished. There is no economic incentive to invest, employ people or produce if it will be stolen from you (or taxed away). The Zulu will get to enjoy the living conditions of 1825 very soon.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Jorge Espinha

There are perfectly coherent defences of aristocracy as a form of government.
The principal benefit is one of competence. The best and most competent people rule, they are cultivated to it from birth, and they can take a more far-sighted view of the country’s interests because the stake of their family in the future is secured, independent of the personal advantage they take from any current office they may happen to hold.
It’s the ideological exclusion of such settlements consequent on a factually unfounded and purely faith-based denial of the inequality in human capacities that has made practical life so difficult in more countries than just South Africa.