“It’s qualitatively different this time.” There are few people I know in South Africa who don’t think that about carnage now engulfing the nation. Violence was institutionalized during the apartheid years. In the post-apartheid years it was rarely far from the surface – police violence, gangster violence, protest violence. What is on display now, however, is how much the social contract that has held the nation together since the end of apartheid has eroded.
Many aspects of the disease are unique to South Africa. There are also themes with a wider resonance. Events in the country demonstrate in a particularly acute way a phenomenon which we are witnessing in different ways and with varying degrees of gravity across the world: the old order is collapsing, with little to fill the void but sectarian movements or politicians identity.
The immediate cause of the violence was the 15-month sentence imposed on former President Jacob Zuma for refusing to testify during a corruption investigation. The protests in Zuma stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal, however, have turned into something bigger and more threatening. A combination of people desperate for poverty and hunger, gangsters seeking to profit from the chaos and political activists settling their scores has created unprecedented unrest in the country. Corruption may have trapped Zuma, but it’s not limited to Zuma. In a country where politics are defined by the patronage of the state, corruption is a central feature. It allowed a small black middle class to join the ranks of the already wealthy whites. And, along with social and economic policies that largely benefit the rich, it also helped create the most unequal society in the world.
All of this has been exacerbated by Covid, devastating lockdowns and government incompetence. In the past year, nearly two-thirds of households had run out of money to buy food in the previous month and nearly one in five weekly hunger. And that was before the government stopped Covid relief payments, which will make the despair even more unbearable.
And then there is police violence. In the year 2019/20, there were 629 deaths at the hands of the police and 216 cases of alleged torture. South African police seem to kill proportionally more than twice as many people like their American counterparts. Yet while global attention has rightly been paid to the police killings of African Americans, the much fiercer police violence in South Africa has garnered far less attention, even within the country. . Black lives often matter less, but some black lives seem to matter less than others.
For the black population of South Africa, despair and rage spring from the feeling that everything has changed and yet so little has changed. Apartheid is gone. Blacks have the right to vote. For many, however, the country has barely advanced materially. Apartheid has had an extremely dehumanizing impact on communities, but it has helped forge social bonds and channel anger into the liberation movement. The dehumanizing effect of post-apartheid policies has only served to erode the social fabric.
As failure to tackle poverty eroded support for the ANC, it responded by leaning more into the politics of division, causing people to become angry with each other. There have been waves of violence, directed against migrant workers, largely fanned by politicians. Many also exploited the divisions between the categories of people defined by apartheid, such as “Blacks”, “Métis” and “Indians”.
The black population is the first victim of inequalities: 64% of blacks live in poverty compared to only 1% of whites. However, inequality is not a question of race but of class: the the main divisions are now within the black population. As the World Bank’s Inequality Report puts it, “increasing inequality among the black and Asian / Indian population” has “prevented any decline in total inequality”. In a political process built on bigotry and racial and ethnic divide, this is a narrative few politicians want to pursue.
Even radical movements that claim to speak for the masses, like the Economic Freedom Fighters, continue frame the problem like a racial conflict between blacks and whites. In response to the violence, local organizations have sprung up to help clean up the damage, distribute food and medicine, and protect the community. Optimists see it as a spark for a new kind of politics. Pessimists fear being swallowed up by the same bigotry that shapes much of politics.
What is happening in the country is a tragedy for the South African people. It is also a warning to the rest of us.