The frustrations and indignities that drove young and middle-aged South Africans to loot and engage in destructive behaviour over the past week are fairly old. If the troubling scenes that overwhelmed South Africa recently appear familiar, it is because this type of violence and plundering, albeit on a smaller scale, has already happened a few times in recent years.
In 2008, for example, 62 people died and 100,000 were displaced in xenophobic attacks that targeted African migrants and foreign-owned shops. The government reacted slowly to the outbreaks of violence and only deployed soldiers to help bring the situation under control well after many migrants had been killed.
Despite the anarchy, then-President Thabo Mbeki did not address the root causes of the unrest. Instead, he was worried about how the “shameful acts of a few” had “blemished the name of South Africa” and dented the ANC’s reputation abroad. So, with little done to assess and rectify the economic and social challenges behind xenophobic violence or to enhance the security services’ preparedness to handle it, South Africa experienced further violent outbreaks in 2015, 2018 and 2019.
The ANC continued to ignore the writing on the wall and in fact used people’s fears to its electoral advantage. Hoping that anti-migrant rhetoric would shield it from assuming responsibility for a plethora of economic shortcomings and appease disgruntled voters, the ANC babysat the growing discontent and targeted migrants in the run-up to the 2019 general election. Party officials blamed migrants for the failing health sector, high crime rates and widespread joblessness.
However, such political manoeuvring did not change the facts on the ground. The ANC’s policies have not really dismantled the oppressive economic structures of apartheid and as a result, people are losing faith in democracy.
In 2019, for instance, South Africa experienced the lowest voter turnout in any of the country’s general elections since the end of apartheid in 1994. And a survey published by the Edelman Trust Barometer in February 2021 revealed that South Africans had more trust in business (of all sectors) than in the ANC government.
That is hardly a surprise, as more than a quarter of municipalities are nearly bankrupt and state-owned entities are struggling due to corruption and bad governance. What is more, in 2020, billions of rands allotted to the Covid-19 response and relief were plundered through dubious procurement practices. People, understandably, are livid and anger is pouring out onto the streets. Between August 2020 and January 2021, South Africa experienced 900 protests over the failure of the state to deliver services.
Excerpted: ‘South Africa’s unrest and the ANC’s many failings’
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