“It feels qualitatively different this time.” There are few people I know in South Africa who do not think this about the carnage that now engulfs the nation. Violence became institutionalized during the apartheid years. In the post-apartheid years, it has rarely been far from the surface: police violence, gangster violence, protest violence. What is now being discovered, however, is the extent to which the social contract that has held the nation together since the end of apartheid has been eroded.
Many aspects of the disorder are special in South Africa. There are also themes with a broader resonance. Events in the country demonstrate in a particularly acute way a phenomenon that we are witnessing in different ways and with degrees of severity around the world: the old order is breaking down, with little to fill the void except sectarian movements or politics. of identity.
The immediate cause of the violence was the 15-month sentence imposed on former President Jacob Zuma for refusing to testify in a corruption investigation. However, the protests in the Zuma stronghold, KwaZulu-Natal, have morphed into something larger and more threatening. A combination of people desperate for poverty and hunger, gangsters looking to profit from chaos, and political activists settling scores have brought an unparalleled tower to the country. Corruption may have ensnared Zuma, but it is not limited to Zuma. In a country where politics is defined by state patronage, corruption is a central feature. It has allowed a small black middle class to join the ranks of the already wealthy whites. And, along with social and economic policies that greatly benefit the rich, it has also helped create the the most unequal society in the world.
All of this has been compounded by Covid, devastating lockdowns, and government incompetence. Over 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 have experienced weekly hunger. And this was before the government stopped Covid aid payments, which will make 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 appear to kill proportionately more than twice as many people like their American counterparts. Yet while worldwide attention has rightly been paid to police killings of African Americans, the much fiercer police violence in South Africa has received much less interest, 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, hopelessness and anger arise from the feeling that everything has changed and yet very little. Apartheid is gone. Blacks have the vote. For many, however, the country, in material terms, has made little progress. Apartheid had an immensely dehumanizing impact on communities, but it helped forge social bonds and channel anger at the liberation movement. The dehumanizing effect of post-apartheid policies has only served to erode the social fabric.
As the inability to address poverty has eroded support for the ANC, it has responded by leaning more toward the politics of division, leading people to turn their anger on each other. There have been waves of violence, directed against migrant workers, much of it fanned by politicians. Many have also exploited the divisions between categories of people defined by apartheid, such as “black”, “colored” and “Indian”.
The black population is the main victim of inequality: 64% of the black population lives 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 report on inequality puts it, “the increasing inequality between the black and Asian / Indian population” has “prevented any decrease in total inequality”. In a political process based on sectarianism and racial and ethnic division, it is a narrative that few politicians want to follow.
Even radical movements that claim to speak for the masses, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, still frame the problem as a racial conflict between whites and blacks. In response to the violence, local organizations have sprung up to help clean up clutter, distribute food and medicine, and protect the community. Optimists see this as a spark for a new kind of politics. Pessimists fear being caught up in the same sectarianism that shapes much of politics.
What is happening in the country is a tragedy for the people of South Africa. It is also a warning to the rest of us.